Of course, while he was up there he also hit a couple of golf balls, and perhaps that's the way Americans who watched it will remember him. But Kluger says that Shepard was known as "the ice commander" for good reason. "He was either all business or he was this genial swashbuckling rocket jock, and he would switch back and forth without warning, according to his own internal clock." Whatever foibles this space pioneer carried inside him, they never poisoned the camaraderie among the original seven Mercury astronauts named by NASA in April 1959. Not too long ago, says Kluger, Shepard was talking to John Glenn about Glenn's upcoming space flight. "Glenn told him that it could be Shepard going up, except he wasn't old enough."
On Tuesday Al Shepard was old enough. The original seven are now down to four. America's heady days of giant leaps are receding into the past, their passing marked by the deaths of her pioneers. Alan Shepard's rank in that history is that of legend.