Shepard was surely that, but the man known as "the icy commander" was also a grandfather of six who leaves behind his wife of 53 years, Louise, 76, their three grown daughters and an extended family from the space program. "Losing him is like losing a brother," says Gordon Cooper, 71, one of the seven original Mercury astronauts along with Shepard, John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Deke Slayton (who died in 1993) and Gus Grissom (killed in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire in 1967). Adds ex-astronaut and golfing buddy Gene Cernan, 64: "Al put up a tough-guy front, but once you broke the code, he was loving and caring."
Shepard moved to California five years ago from Houston, where, after retiring as a Navy rear admiral in 1974, he made millions in a variety of ventures including construction, real estate and beer (as a Coor's distributor he sometimes made delivery runs himself). Until last fall he headed the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which has raised more than $1 million for promising college students interested in space exploration.
Shepard's own space odyssey began in rural East Derry, N.H., where he was born in 1923, the elder child of Alan Shepard, who owned an insurance agency, and his wife, Renza. He attended a one-room school and indulged a fascination with flying by working odd jobs at a local airfield. Shepard went on to the U.S. Naval Academy, served in the Pacific during World War II, became one of the Navy's top pilots and in 1959 was chosen as one of the Mercury Seven. Picked to be the first American hurled into space (23 days before Shepard's launch, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth), Shepard quipped wryly, "They ran out of monkeys."
The Mercury Seven were competitive but close ("There was a very strong bond that people can't understand," says Schirra, 75), and when their exploits were celebrated by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, Shepard loathed both the book and the movie that followed because he felt they unfairly portrayed the men as juvenile carousers and pranksters. Unquestionably, some hell was raised—"He liked to party," Guenter Wendt, 75, longtime flight-pad chief of Florida space launches, says of Shepard—but at work he was usually dead serious. "He'd come undone when things happened he didn't like," notes Wendt. Yet it was also Shepard who kept colleagues loose. "He'd say, 'Hey, we're not trying to cure cancer; we're just trying to get to the moon and back,' " recalls Apollo 14 flight director Gerry Griffin, 63.
Shepard called that mission "the most personally satisfying thing I've ever done," in part because it was a trip he thought he'd never make. Grounded in 1963 because of an inner-ear disorder, he'd chafed on the sidelines until surgery in 1968 corrected the problem.
On his Apollo voyage, Shepard revealed a soft core beneath his crusty veneer, weeping as he beheld Earth from the lunar surface. "It looks so lovely, so fragile," he said. "I thought, 'Just imagine the millions of people who are living on it and don't realize how fragile it is.' "
Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston, Timothy Roche in Miami and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles