Smilin’ Al, of the Cape

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Smilin’ Al, of the Cape

Smilin’ Al, of the Cape is Tom Wolfe’s characterization of Alan Shepard, America’s first astronaut, in his 1979 classic The Right Stuff.

Review of Light This Candle, The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America’s First Spaceman, by Neal Thompson, 2004
Reviewed by Everard Cunion in 2006

In the north London flat where we lived in 1961 my brother and I took turns at sitting in a wooden chair lying with its high back on the floor. We ‘strapped in’ facing the ceiling and, with appropriate sound effects that I doubt were very much like the roar of a Redstone rocket, we slowly tilted towards the normal horizontal position, becoming upright as we reached orbit. We were emulating the free world’s first spaceman, Alan B. Shepard.

While reading this book and keeping an eye open for dramatic quotes to use in this review, I gave up simply because there is a least one on every page!

Book cover

Book cover

While Tom Wolfe touches on Shepard’s bizarre character (a very correct navy officer who, when he stepped off the airliner in the Florida wasteland where he was training to go into space, his bulging eyes danced about, his prominent lips spread into a goomba goomba grin, and you half expected him to start snapping his fingers and ask “Where’s the action?”), Thompson investigates the secretive Shepard more thoroughly.

However, I occasionally wonder how reliable some of his sources are:

After his freshman year, Shepard tried to pack more muscle into his wire-thin frame by swimming back and forth across a nearby pond with a rope harness around his shoulders and pulling an empty rowboat.

Yeah, right. Doubtless after a hearty breakfast of hot gravel (if you were lucky)…

Thompson is an outstandingly good writer. (Wolfe is hilarious, but over the top at times.) Here is a bit about Shepard’s World War Two service aboard a navy destroyer in the pacific subject to Japanese Kamikaze attacks, before he entered flying training:

In the year since graduation he had matured in countless, unexpected ways. He may not have been a pilot or a hero, but he was also no longer just another man in uniform. Shepard was now, at twenty-one years old, a fighter, an officer, a killer – an American warrior. And his diligent efforts, along with the others blasting the Cogswell’s guns at the enemy, prevented his destroyer from joining ships such as the USS Porter and the USS Pringle on the ocean floor.


Thompson’s knowledge of flight has some obvious gaping holes, but that is normal nowadays even among the well-educated, like Thompson. Those of my ‘generation’, brought up on aviation, are used to reading between the lines. (But hell, any ten-year old knows that the stall in an aircraft refers to the wings suddenly losing lift, not the engine quitting. Don’t they?) A minor gripe.

Thompson is a great writer, but boy is he lacking in basic physics! He is one of the handful of folks I have come across who does not understand the difference between speed and acceleration. He really should have had a technical person proof read it.


Despite its faults, I found this book a well written insight into the character of the western world’s first astronaut.

Then, just a few hundred yards into its slow ascent, the rocket began to waver. It tipped sideways, its thin skin buckled, and the Atlas spectacularly exploded. The seven astronauts were so close to the launch pad they all instinctively ducked. Shepard turned to Glenn, who was standing beside him, and broke the stunned silence that followed.

“Well, I’m glad they got that one out of the way,” he said. “I sure hope they fix that.”

I recommend this book.

Internal links

Guidance is internal—my review of First Man, 2018, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11

Powered flight

Space suits and frocks on the box—my review of the movie The Right Stuff, 1983

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