In 1959, NASA chose seven men to train for space exploration. It was an absolute honor to participate in such an elite task force, but Alan Shepard was the only one who actually succeeded in making it all the way to the moon. However while it may seem glamorous, Shepard’s journey was rife with trauma. After years of silence, he’s finally coming clean about the dark experiences he underwent—and the details are truly shocking.
Anyone who was alive during the late ’60s remembers how intense the Apollo 11 launch was. The world watched in awe as three American astronauts — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins — piloted the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle with success. But this foray into space wouldn’t have been possible without Alan Shepard.
See, the 1969 Apollo 11 flight wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if not for a dedicated group of seven astronauts chosen by NASA in 1959. Each individual had no idea what to expect, considering NASA was breaking into completely new territory, but they were all thrilled at the chance to participate.
One of the most talented and respected astronauts in the group was a man named Alan Shepard. During World War II, Shepard worked aboard a Navy vessel, and after the war ended he became a test pilot. His talents eventually brought him to NASA in 1959 as one of the Mercury Seven astronauts.
Shepard and his crew were all put through grueling physical and mental challenges to prove they were fit for space travel. Finally, after working tirelessly for two years, Shepard took control of a spacecraft he named Freedom 7 on the very first Project Mercury flight. He was the first American to venture into the vast unknown.
Freedom 7 managed to enter into space on May 5, 1961, but Shepard was unable to achieve orbit around Earth. However, he did fly 116 miles high before coming back down. The trip was nothing short of exhilarating for both the astronaut and the anxious engineers watching at NASA, but everyone was still well aware of the dangers space travel posed.
For one thing, if something went awry, the only help an astronaut had was the vocal instructions from the control center; the bulk of the problem solving was on the astronaut’s shoulders. Additional pressures were added to Alan’s journey, too. Troubles he couldn’t anticipate.
He once jokingly quipped, “It is a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.” He trusted his engineers, but he was still uneasy with the experience — especially given what happened the day before launch.
To add even more stress to Shepard’s journey, a Navy balloonist named Victor Prather (below) died one day before Freedom 7 took off when his pressure suit — identical to Shepard’s — filled with water and he drowned. Fortunately, Shepard didn’t suffer the same fate. Though he did face more sobering thoughts.
“I realized up there that our planet is not infinite,” Commander Shepard recalled. “It’s fragile. That may not be obvious to a lot of folks, and it’s tough that people are fighting each other here on Earth instead of trying to get together and live on this planet. We look pretty vulnerable in the darkness of space.”
After landing in the ocean near the Bahamas, Shepard was pulled to safety, and a group of NASA doctors put the astronaut through an intensely thorough checkup once he returned to Space Center Houston. They checked his vital signs, balance, and mental coordination. As it turned out, Shepard was completely healthy — this had lasting ramifications.
Shepard was scheduled to then man the next two flights into space, with the third and final one being an Apollo mission to physically land on the moon. To say Shepard was excited was an understatement; this was an achievement he’d dreamed about for years. However, a physical issue tragically struck, and Shepard soon found himself off the piloting list.
Shepard was hit with Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that caused sporadic moments of nausea and extreme dizziness. Naturally, NASA couldn’t send someone prone to those side effects into space, so Shepard was forced to accept a desk job, which he loathed. For nearly six years, he frustratingly sat by and watched other astronauts take flight. However, in 1968, much-needed relief came.
Shepard underwent an experimental surgery to fix the inner-ear ailment, and it worked! Finally, after impatiently waiting behind a desk for over half a decade Shepard was ready for space travel again. Because of his status at NASA, he managed to snag an immediate flight assignment and avoid the long wait facing other astronauts. On February 15, 1971, Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 mission.
That’s because, two years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin so famously took a giant leap for mankind, NASA concluded two lunar landings weren’t enough. Organization executives wanted a third, so they cooked up the Apollo 14 mission. The mission saw Commander Alan Shepard, Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell suit up for what would be a nine-day jaunt to the moon.
NASA scheduled the launch for October 1970, but, after the failure of the Apollo 13 mission, delayed it four months. So, it was January 31, 1971, when these three finally took off from the Kennedy Space Center.
The astronauts hoped, of course, that their scientific agenda up in space would change the way humanity thought about physics. About life. They didn’t know, however, that they’d make a discovery destined to shake the scientific community years later.
At 47 years of age, Shepard became the fifth and oldest person to traverse the moon’s landscape. He was joined by crewmates Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell in the Apollo Lunar Module named Antares, and all three men made it to the moon! Roosa stayed in the crew capsule while Shepard and Mitchell took two moonwalks and collected over 100 pounds of rocks to bring back home. Some of these samples seemed troublingly like minerals found on Earth – a fact that certain individuals would no doubt have liked to have kept classified – and they would go on to reshape theories about the Earth’s development, billions of years ago.
Shepard also wanted to leave his own unique mark on the adventure, so he took his love of sports up into orbit. He harnessed his inner Jack Nicklaus and cranked two golf balls off the moon’s surface! With this, Shepard also carved out a new image of astronauts to the world.
Before Shepard’s Apollo 14 journey, the typical idea of an astronaut was someone mild-mannered and conservative. However, the corvette-loving, golf-ball whacking personality that Shepard brought to NASA turned the tables on everyone’s thoughts, and people loved him for it. He brought a previously unseen level of “cool” to the space program.
And then, nine days after takeoff, on February 9, the Apollo 14 crew landed safely in the Pacific Ocean. Back on Earth, they delivered their findings to NASA, where scientists eagerly went to work. They didn’t realize how important their findings were.
Unbeknownst to the Apollo 14 crew, however, was that amidst those hundreds of rocks was one that would have scientists completely baffled. A rock that had no business being on the moon. This was not something scientists discovered for a few more decades, however. As he’d done before, Alan faced some tough truths on the mission.
Traveling into space and walking on the moon changed Shepard for the better. When interviewed by British television host David Frost, he explained that the journey gave him “a new maturity” in life. He also later admitted in a different interview that when he looked at Earth from the moon he “wept a little bit. I hadn’t expected to do that.”
NASA knew a man like Shepard deserved all the recognition in the world for his career, and so the National Air and Space Museum set up an exhibit to honor him. Not only was Shepard’s Mercury capsule on display, but visitors could also get an up-close and personal look at his intricate space suit.
Even though Shepard passed away in 1998, his legacy was never forgotten, and his oldest daughter, Laura Shepard Churchley, still plays a large role in keeping his memory alive. Not only does she give presentations to students around the country, but she’s also the Chair of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation Board of Trustees, a position her father would look down upon with the utmost pride.
Meanwhile, the rocks Alan and his crew retrieved from space were passed around from lab to lab, expert to expert. Decades later, after NASA loaned the rock to Curtin University in Australia in 2018, Professor Alexander Nemchin made an eyebrow-raising observation about the rock (below).
The 1.8-gram sample contained granite, a mineral common on Earth but incredibly rare on the moon. “The sample also contains quartz (below),” Professor Nemchin added, “which is an even more unusual find on the moon.”
Additionally, the rock contained zircon, and the chemistry was “very different from that of every other zircon grain ever analyzed in lunar samples,” he continued, “and remarkably similar to that of zircons found on Earth.”
In other words, somehow, among all the rocks collected by Shepard and Mitchell, was a rock formed on Earth! Professor Nemchin and his team were stumped: how could a stone make the journey without hitching a ride?
Professor Nemchin and his team put their heads together and composed a theory. The story behind the rock’s journey, as they saw it, started 4 billion years before the Apollo 14 crew stepped aboard their spacecraft.
See, back then, when the Earth was in its infancy, space proved a wild place. Asteroids were constantly slamming into the baby-faced planet, forming the landmasses we call home (because Bruce Willis wasn’t around to destroy them).
Some of those pre-Willis meteors hit with so much impact that they launched pieces of the earth’s surface a few dozen million miles, all the way up to the surface of the moon.
While this sounds insane, the moon during that time period was about three times closer to Earth than it is now. This explained why the rock collected by the Apollo crew was so clearly formed under terrestrial conditions.
An alternative theory is that conditions on the moon billions of years ago were, like, the total opposite of what they are now, and that allowed the rock to form as is. Nemchin and his crew found the asteroid catapult a more reasonable theory.
Either way, as team member Dr. David Kring, of the Universities Space Research Association, said, “it is an extraordinary find that helps paint a better picture of early Earth and the bombardment that modified our planet.”
Coincidentally, a few years before the Apollo 14 crew launched, Astronaut Gordon Cooper — who had a similar role to that of 14’s Stuart Roosa — first made a discovery from space that changed the way we saw history.
It was 1959 when NASA invited Cooper to Washington, D.C. as a potential candidate for the Mercury Project. The project sought to put a man into Earth’s orbit and then return him safely, and Cooper was an ideal candidate. Alan Shepard, if you remember, commanded the first flight on Freedom 7.
After placing him on a shortlist of 109 potential candidates, NASA selected Cooper as one of seven men for the program. In May 1963, he conducted his first mission aboard the Faith 7, a craft so small it could only fit someone under five feet and 11 inches tall.
The instructions NASA gave the enthusiastic Oklahoman were simple: go into space solo, survive, and study zero gravity’s prolonged effects on the human body. At least, this was the mission as far as the public was concerned…
The project started out a rousing success. From May 15 to 16, for just about 34 hours, Cooper orbited Earth, becoming the first astronaut to sleep in space. But then, in the midst of this enormous accomplishment, disaster nearly struck…
As Faith 7 returned to Earth, the automatic piloting system malfunctioned. Experienced flier that he was, Cooper didn’t panic. Instead, he grabbed the controls and maneuvered the spacecraft into a perfect landing on a waiting aircraft carrier. His mission was complete… or was it?
Though the public didn’t know it at the time, Cooper’s mission also involved taking pictures. “Man, all I do is take pictures, pictures, pictures,” he said in a message to ground control. “I’m up to 5,245 now.” But he wasn’t just looking for eye-catching images…
Cooper’s camera was actually equipped to detect magnetic aberrations along the Earth’s surface. This allowed him to secretly look for Soviet nuclear bases or submarines off the coast of the United States…
In the process of searching for secret nuclear bases, Cooper also detected hundreds of anomalies near the Caribbean, which he carefully charted in his small Faith 7 spacecraft. These aberrations, he noticed, weren’t big enough to be nuclear sites. So, what were they?
Cooper wasn’t sure what he’d spotted from space, but he had a few ideas. For an unknown reason, he never told NASA or the Department of Defense about these strange anomalies. He decided to embark on his own personal mission…
Once safely back on Earth, Cooper started investigating his findings. The anomalies he saw all seemed bunched around old trading routes that had been highly trafficked by Spanish ships. Surely this was more than a coincidence…
Cooper quickly made the connection from the shipping routes to possible shipwrecks, and he researched everything he could regarding centuries-old shipwrecks. Eventually, he felt confident that he had, in fact, charted some of them from space! What did this all mean?
The world would have to wait to find out. He had a long and successful career, including a mission on the Gemini 5, during which he spent 190 hours in space. Still, Cooper never had the time to truly explore his findings. As he grew older, time started running out…
Afflicted with Parkinson’s and nearing the end of his days, Cooper didn’t want his secret discovery to be for naught, so he phoned his friend, Darrell Miklos (right). An explorer who had experience hunting for rocket ship debris, Miklos could investigate on Cooper’s behalf.
Cooper passed away in 2004, but by then his map was safely in his friend’s possession. At long last, it was time for Miklos to investigate what Gordon Cooper had seen from space all of those decades ago. Was there any truth to it?
“I believed Gordon 100 percent,” Miklos told Parade magazine. “I didn’t need proof.” Neither did the Discovery Channel, which, along with Miklos, created Cooper’s Treasure, a 2017 TV show that documented the investigation.
So, what did they find? On one journey, Miklos and his crew traveled to a spot on Cooper’s map looking for evidence of a shipwreck. With the help of deep-sea diving gear, they surveyed the ocean’s floor, hoping for a sign…
Sure enough, the crew uncovered a massive anchor! They hauled it to their deck, and soon after they realized that it was from the era of Christopher Columbus. This made it an extremely valuable artifact from the past!
By mid-2017, Miklos and his crew had searched five spots on Cooper’s map, and at all five, they found evidence of a shipwreck. With hundreds of points still left to explore, what other treasures might be waiting for Miklos to uncover?
Miklos planned to visit the rest of the locations, but it would take time. Still, as he told Newsweek, “I hear Gordon all the time in the back of my head: ‘You’re on the right trail!'” And it sure looked that way.
Regardless of whether Miklos would be able to spend the next few decades searching for his friend’s discoveries remains to be seen. Still, you know that Gordon Cooper—the Oklahoma boy who reached the stars—would be happy to see his secret finally paid off!