Alan Shepard was 37 the day he became the first American in space; 37 years later, I was working at the Baltimore Sun and received a call from an editor, telling me that Shepard had died and asking me to contribute a few paragraphs to his obituary. A quick Internet search that day told me that, except for a thin 1962 young adult book, no biography existed on America’s first astronaut. When I decided to make up for that omission, I quickly discovered why no one had ventured to write about Shepard.
Alan Shepard felt no compunction to explain to the world, to anyone, who he was and where he’d been. He hoarded his privacy, to the point of turning down many lucrative endorsement offers. In death, those loyal to him continued to protect that privacy. Sure, there were things he was hiding – women, business deals, broken friendships, marital strife – things he knew might tarnish his hero’s image. But by venturing beyond that image, into Shepard’s past, into a few dark corners, I found a more human, complex and complete man than the Corvette-driving stud I’d been awed by in Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.”
This book began as a series of questions: How does a man reach the front lines of the cold war? Where does an edgy, competitive explorer go after he’s already gone where few men have? How does someone reach the moon and how does he survive after he’s gone there? By picking through the scattered clues Shepard left behind, by enlisting the help of some family members, scores of friends and colleagues, by gaining access to some of Shepard’s military records and his FBI files, what emerges in response to those questions is a large, energetic and aggressive life. A life that, before and after space, pulsed with mystery, romance and adventure. Shepard was the military version of what Elvis was to music, what James Dean was to Hollywood, what Kerouac was to literature. Today’s man was once a boy who wanted to be Alan Shepard. But, until now, his true story has never been fully told. It’s the story of life fully lived, and entwined through it is – somewhat surprisingly for a man so famous for philandering – a love story.
His beautiful wife Louise might have told the story. But after 53 years of marriage, she followed him into oblivion, dying suddenly and mysteriously, five weeks after he did, on an airplane, 40,000 feet above Earth.
Just what a biography should be: sharp, evocative, and brisk. —Kirkus Reviews
One of the finest books ever written about the space program. —Homer Hickam (author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Rocket Boys)
Tough to say what’s cooler: that Alan Shepard was the first American in space, or that he hit a golf ball on the moon … [Thompson] chronicles the amazing life of the brashest, funniest astronaut ever. —Men’s Health
A rare, warts-and-all portrait – and Shepard had a lot of warts. Thompson does a stellar job painting a real-life figure who never really showed his true self to anyone. —The Vancouver Sun
Shepard always had to be first and best. The fires that drove him made him a fierce competitor, a womanizer and a wealthy businessman, and enabled him to overcome the disease that threatened his career. Thompson has written an extremely readable account of America’s first astronaut-hero. —The Dallas Morning News
Thompson’s persistence in interviewing Shepard’s surviving colleagues has bared Shepard’s soul in ways the man himself seemed incapable of doing. —Kansas City Star
Neal Thompson’s Light this Candle is just a wonderful and gripping biography. It is meticulously reported in the best tradition of David Halberstam. It is written with eloquent grace. Most satisfying of all, Light This Candle is the can’t-put-it-down story of a modern swashbuckler determined to conquer the universe whatever the risk. In Thompson’s hands, an amazing life, the ultimate American life, comes alive so exquisitely. – Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights
Irresistible … a tenacious biography of Shepard’s remarkable life. A chapter of American history like no other. Thompson hits all the right notes. –The Buffalo News
Thompson writes with eloquent grace. This is one of the finest books ever written about our space program. The thoroughness of the author’s research is impressive. –The Indianapolis Star
Alan Shepard comes through as ambitious, cold, and often selfish. He also comes through as competent, determined, and brave. –The Washington Times