The First Right Potato

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The best proof of history are its survivors, and just as a war shrinks in a nation's rear-view mirror as its veterans pass on, the early, headiest days of the Space Age have just gotten a little more remote: Alan B. Shepard, the first American into space, is dead. Though two of those original Mercury seven astronauts have fallen before him, the ebullient, iconoclastic Shepard is the first to go gently, of Nature, of old age. That is not an excuse to begin forgetting.

Tom Wolfe wrote the definitive record of those first high-flying days, and three hours gets you his tome in pictures, courtesy of Philip Kaufman: The Right Stuff. It's played in this space before, and it sure enough will again -- but at 193 minutes and an all-star cast, there's more than enough movie to go around.

Who's the biggest Jose Jimenez fan you ever saw? Alan Shepard, (not to be confused with Sam Shepard, who plays a great Yeager in this one) and you're looking at him. Scott Glenn does the old pioneer justice in all his guts, grace and flinty humor. From his lips we get one of space's first slogans -- "everything is AOK" -- and some lesser-known launchpad gems, namely "Dear Lord, please don't let me f--- this up."

He didn't.

The standard of the original seven flies yet -- John Glenn, squeaky-clean and super-heroic to this day (and years older than Shepard) will go up again in this age, when space flights leave like crosstown buses, and that will be fun. But you always remember your first time, right? That was Shepard's, and always will be.