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Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard--America's First Spaceman Hardcover – March 23, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The 15-minute Freedom 7 flight in 1961 made astronaut Alan Shepard America's first man in space and its first hero of the space age. Later he made history by playing golf on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission. But journalist Thompson reveals another side of this all-American navy pilot with the right stuff. Although married for more than 50 years, Shepard had an eye for the prettiest girl in a room. Even longtime colleagues found him a hard man to get to know. The "Icy Commander" could be charming and helpful one minute, steely-eyed and "reaming them out" the next. Thompson traces Shepard's life from a New Hampshire childhood, when he was captivated with flying, to a lackluster career at Annapolis, where he frequently bent the rules, then his goal of becoming a jet pilot. Thompson shines a light on the very private Shepard's career between his Mercury and Apollo days, when he was earthbound by Menière's disease, which affected his equilibrium. In retirement, Shepard amazed everyone (except probably his devoted wife, Louise) by energetically embracing philanthropic causes before succumbing to leukemia at age 74. Thompson doesn't reveal much that die-hard space junkies don't already know about Shepard's often contentious relationship with his Mercury 7 colleagues, especially John Glenn, but his is a snappily written, factual counterbalance to Tom Wolfe's sometimes poetic renderings of the heroes of the early space program. Space buffs and baby boomers who remember Shepard's gravity-escaping flight should snap it up. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Impatient, driven, competitive, and sharp-tongued--astronaut Alan Shepard (1923-98) was all of those for much of his life, and despite his long marriage to the remarkable Louise Brewster, a party animal, too. One of the two best pilots among the original Mercury Seven, Shepard was selected over the other, John Glenn, to be the first American in space, and his career culminated in taking Apollo 14 to the moon. The driven quality about him sometimes made him unappealing and even downright appalling, but it helped him fight off Meniere's disease (an inner-ear disorder) to get back into space while simultaneously building a business empire. Although newsman Thompson has thoroughly researched Shepard, he makes a few mistakes, such as putting the F4U Corsair at the Battle of Midway, and it is odd that he doesn't mention Walter Schirra's nine-hour, orbital Sigma 7 flight among other early space-program milestones. But noticeable glitches didn't prevent completion of the Mercury missions, and they don't much impede this first full-dress biography of a complex space pioneer. Roland Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st edition (March 23, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609610015
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609610015
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #948,090 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Neal specializes in narrative nonfiction, biography, and overlooked Americana. His fourth book, A CURIOUS MAN, chronicles the hard-to-believe life of the eccentric world-traveling cartoonist, media pioneer, millionaire-celebrity-playboy Robert 'Believe It or Not' Ripley, considered to be the godfather of reality TV. David Shields says A Curious Man "constructs an elegant argument: the world Ripley created is the world in which we now live", and Ben Fountain says "anyone who wants to understand America needs to read this book."

A former journalist, Neal has worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Baltimore Sun, and has written for Outside, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Men's Health. He and his books have been featured on NPR, ESPN, the History Channel, Fox, and TNT. Neal lives in Seattle with his wife and two skateboarding sons. Since 2011 he has worked as an editor, reviewer and interviewer on the books team at, where he oversees the Best Books of the Month program (

Says Neal: "As an obsessive reader and writer, I've devoted my career to storytelling and the written word and, more recently, to championing great books and talented writers. While I'm passionate about my own stories, I'm equally inspired to support the works of other authors."

See Neal's stories and interviews at, and his reviews at See reviews of Neal's books, as well as excerpts, photos, videos, and dozens of author interviews at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Colin Burgess on April 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
To anyone but a true student of spaceflight history, this might be regarded as a superb biography of an extraordinary man, and it certainly comes very close. Neal Thompson has a punchy, smooth-running style, which obviously reflects his lengthy career as a professional journalist, but just like a journalist it seems he kept his manuscript to himself and well under wraps, and I believe this has proved a sad downfall for an otherwise excellent book. People who know their spaceflight stuff are thick on the ground, but it is very obvious that no one was consulted in order to simply verify the so-called facts about Shepard's NASA career in this book. There are so many elementary errors inherent in this part of the story that it must call into question the reliability of other areas such as his military service, and he deserves better.

The author's descriptions of early spacecraft are incorrect; so too his explanations of the dynamics of space flight and the space environment. I know helicopter pilot Jim Lewis well enough to say that he would be absolutely furious with Thompson's baseless assumption that Gus Grissom blamed Lewis for nearly letting him drown after the hatch blew on his spacecraft. Quite the contrary - Lewis was elsewhere making a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save Liberty Bell 7. Any fundamental study of this dramatic event would reveal that Lewis's helicopter did not in fact retrieve Grissom as stated in the book, and his was not the only helicopter on the scene - there were actually three involved. I also feel that far more effort should have been made to research the Mercury flight of Scott Carpenter, rather than reiterating bitter and biased recollections dominating Chris Kraft's account of this flight in his own book.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By James H. H. Lampert on April 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
On the one hand, this is a long-overdue biography of an American hero who never did make things easy for biographers. It shows us where Shepard came from, and how he wound up riding a fifteen-minute lob over the Atlantic, and playing golf on the moon, and it makes for fascinating reading.
Unfortunately, the book is somewhat marred by numerous errors of detail that any expert on manned spaceflight history could have caught, and the occasional annoyingly awkward turn of phrase that any competent copy editor should have caught. Together, these give the author a less-than-authoritative tone. Then, too, even the typography of the book is slightly annoying: for the chapter titles and the page headers, somebody picked a truly ugly and amateurish-looking font, one that doesn't belong in any book.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By jaydro on August 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I had been meaning to read this long-overdue biography of Alan Shepard, and I happened to pick it up in a cruise ship library. As I read it I was surprised at the number of factual inaccuracies--there is at least one glaring non-technical error per chapter, which calls into question almost everything else between the covers. Numerous reviews here mention more problems with technical aspects of the book that I was unaware of, but which do not surprise me given the apparent lack of proofreading and fact-checking.

An example: upon finding the book, I leafed through it and found the section on Apollo 14. There it mentioned that John Glenn had "almost killed himself when he lost control of the pace car at the Daytona 500 and slammed into a flatbed trailer crowded with journalists." This sentence boggled my mind, for it contained two errors: the pace car was at the Indianapolis 500, and John Glenn was a passenger while a local Dodge dealership owner was the driver. The book is just full of examples of this kind of sloppy reporting.

Edit: I see that at least the paperback edition correctly says Indianapolis 500, but it still incorrectly implies that Glenn was driving the pace car.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Kim A. Brown on October 12, 2008
Format: Paperback
I can't imagine the vast amount of research that went into this biography, but it was well worth the time and effort. The book is packed with detail, humor, and antecdotes that help the reader to really understand the good, the bad, and the ugly about Alan Shepard. The writer manages to invoke admiration for Shepard even when describing him at his very worst. This was definitely (along with Chris Kraft's autobiography) one of the most interesting and entertaining accounts of a legendary figure in America's race for the moon.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By F. Andrews on March 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I was looking forward to reading this bioagraphy having read most of the biographies of the American Astronauts that are out there along with many histories of the Space Program. Having grown up in the 60's and 70's I also followed the program intently. However, upon reading this I was both disappointed and sceptical about the accuracy of what the book contained. Factual error after error constantly gnawed away at any faith that what I was reading was to be believed. Others have pointed out errors I missed like Grissom's pick up though I suspected things weren't as I recalled (I knew there was more than one helicopter), so I'll add these corrections: The developement of the Saturn 5 was not a result of the Apollo 1 fire ( the Saturn 5 was always the vehicle intended for the lunar flights and were being built); Glenn's landing bag did,'t deploy (this is never made clear); the Soviets did not rendezvous two two man spacecraft ( they only launched two single passenger Vostoks in similar orbital planes that resulted in their passing within a few miles of each other and the Gemini 8 docking is never mentioned). The author has obviously read most of the same books I have and and used them for most of his research and many incidents recounted bore a striking resemblance to scenes from Tom Hank's "From the Earth To the Moon" series.
All in all a bit of a disappointment
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