Alan Shepard, 1923-1998

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WASHINGTON: Another of the high-flying seven has fallen. Alan Shepard, who in 1961 became the first American in space and, a decade after that, perhaps rescued the space program from oblivion, died Tuesday night at age 74. "There are few people with a more exalted place in the pantheon," says TIME space correspondent Jeffrey Kluger. "He was the first. But even more remarkable was his second trip." After 10 years on the ground with ear trouble, Shepard was 47 in 1971 when, with very little training, he took the Apollo 14 lunar module back up -- and spent 33 hours on the moon's surface. "At that time, on the heels of the Apollo 13 near-disaster, people were asking whether space was worth the risk. Shepard succeeded at a very critical time for NASA."

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.