Light This Candle

Light This CandleOrder this bookStory: America’s first astronaut was also one of its quietest. Fiercely guarding his privacy and that of his family, Alan B. Shepard Jr. did few interviews during his time as an astronaut, seldom talking about his stellar career as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot and later test pilot, or his quest to be the first man in space (he had to be content to be the first American in space, a mantle he was just as happy to wear), or his fierce fight with a debilitating disease – a fight he won before commanding the third successful lunar landing mission, Apollo 14.

Review: As author Neal Thompson explains in his foreword, he wasn’t inspired to write Alan Shepard’s biography until, when asked to write an article upon Shepard’s death, he discovered that no such book existed. Thompson decided to fill this gap himself, and he’s done an admirable job with Light This Candle – amazing, really, drawing from a staggering number of sources, some of them rather obscure and terribly enlightening. Interviews with Shepard’s surviving fellow Mercury Seven astronauts, as well as the astronauts under him during his lengthy grounding while battling a disorienting inner ear disease, you’d expect; Thompson goes back as far as Shepard’s Navy days, interviewing bunkmates, shipmates, instructors, fellow pilots, you name it. The FBI’s dossier on Shepard is also opened, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.

The picture that emerges from this daunting amount of research is that of a man determined, sharp, skilled, and yet flawed. As heroically as Shepard comes across in the book, the narrative also touches on the astronaut’s dark side, ranging from his ruthless push to get command of an Apollo mission to his near-legendary marital indiscretions. A lot of time is spent describing Shepard’s family and home life, and sometimes it paints a less-than-flattering picture of the man himself – it’s always respectful, but at times brutally honest as well. Heroic or not, Shepard had some problems, and while some may prefer to leave America’s first spaceman on a pedestal, I appreciate the route of academic and intellectual honesty that was taken here. The flaws are discussed, but not exploitatively or in a sensationalized way – and I find fascinating the author’s theory that Shepard’s apparently sexy bad-boy image may have been just as valuable to NASA as John Glenn’s self-styled, squeaky-clean image.

If anything, my only complaint is that the book is too short – nearly the first half of it is taken up by Shepard’s childhood, his Navy career (and the numerous reckless stunts that nearly ended it as early as his Naval Academy days), and the build-up to the race for space. And yet after Apollo 14, it seems that Shepard’s remaining years – almost half of his life – are compressed down into a short space, and it seems that we only pause to examine events that relate back to his Naval and astronautical careers. Granted, that’s probably what most readers will seem interested in, so that’s probably a nitpick there. The book’s shorter than you might expect – the narrative, naturally, ends with Shepard’s death and the death of his wife mere weeks later, and then follows a massive bibliography and index. To say that “Light This Candle” is well-researched, and that its author’s research is well backed-up, is an understatement.

It’s a story of brave deeds, mistakes made, and someone who was, more than anything, driven by his own pursuit of excellence. The book doesn’t apologize for Shepard at any point (if anything, the author almost seems to channel his subject at times, using a few colorful phrases that it’s not impossible to imagine Shepard himself using), and it doesn’t need too. Highly recommended – reverent and yet honest, “Light This Candle” gives us a new glimpse at the first American in space, and how he parlayed his fierce fight to be first into the rest of his career and his life.

Year: 2004
Author: Neal Thompson
Publisher: Crown Press
Pages: 445 pages