Big Al Shepard Plays Baseball on the Moon
by Jamie Todd Rubin
Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom walks to the podium. It has been more than three decades since he stood
on the lunar surface. His hair, black then, is now an iron gray. He wears a black suit of a fine
weave and his astronaut pin catches the light filtering in through the cathedral windows.
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen," he says. "Tonight we gather to honor the memory of a
friend, a colleague, and a pioneer whose legacy will be difficult to match for decades to come.
Tonight, we bid farewell to Alan B. Shepard." At this he pauses and looks across at the sea of
faces that stare back at him in silence. He has rehearsed this speech in front of his wife, Betty,
but now it seems all wrong. He considers this for a moment, then continues.
"Al was the first American in space. He was the first commander of a Gemini mission. He was
my backup commander on Apollo 1. And in October 1968, Al was slated to be the fifth man to
walk on the moon. Neil Armstrong and I beat him by a few months, but Al still acquired more
firsts than anyone else in the astronaut corps.
"Many of you knew Al. He was NASA's brightest star. Many of you know of Big Al Shepard's
major league baseball career just before the United States entered the Second World War." Gus
pauses again, looking for the words. "But today I want to tell you a story that most of you don't
know. I want to tell you about how a wild pitch Al took during his playing year endangered his
moon landing, and the effect it had on his Apollo 13 mission a quarter century later.
"I was CAPCOM during the launch of Apollo 13, and as we all remember, that mission seemed
cursed from the start . . ."
Fourteen Minutes in October
As his world rumbled and shuddered around him, Big Al Shepard glanced at the instruments and
said, "The clock is running."
Beside him, his command module pilot, Stu Roosa, said, "P-eleven, Al."
"Yaw program," Al said. His gloved left hand cradled the abort handle as a chef might cradle an
A voice in his helmet said, "Clear the tower."
"Clear the tower," Stu Roosa said. That was when the ringing in Al's left ear started, so loud and
piercing it stole all his other senses. He twisted his head to the right, as if trying to escape the
sound, but it didn't help. He would have to wait it out. The old injury could not have picked a
worse time to remind Al of its existence.
"Yaw program complete," Al said a few seconds later. He could feel the speed building up. The
cabin shook violently, and with the shrill sound in one ear, he had to focus his attention to hear
anything at all. He felt like he had all those years ago, tuning out the crowd when he came to the
plate at Fenway.
"Houston, roger. Roll."