How important is a father to a son? How much does a son value his father’s good opinion? How much does it matter to a son that his father can approve and respect what he has done and what he has become?
We didn’t have to go to the Moon to answer these questions, but one episode in that great enterprise does open a window on a good son’s desire to have a good father’s approval.
Alan Shepard, son of an Air Force officer, was a naval aviator, the first American in space in the Mercury program, the Chief of the Astronaut Office during the Gemini Program, and commander of Apollo 14, the third successful American moon landing mission. In the documentary Moon Shot there is an interview segment in which a 70 year old Alan Shepard reflects on his crowning professional achievement–also one of the most stupendous of all human technical achievements–the 1971 Apollo 14 Moon mission. Here is what he had to say:
One of the moments which I shall never forget occurred three weeks after the return from the Moon. My father and I were just having a little brandy in the living room, and out of the blue he said: “Do you remember when you first called us, back in 1959, and said you were going to be an astronaut?” And I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “Do you remember what I said?” I said, “Yes, sir, I certainly do. You were not in favor of it.” And he raised his glass and said, “I was wrong.” That’s all he had to say.
You can see the whole documentary here, and if you scroll to the 2 hour, 55 minute mark you can see the interview in question. You can also see for yourself that by the end of his story Alan Shepard has tears in his eyes and can’t say any more.
So here is a man who achieved everything there was to achieve in his profession, who did something of world-historic significance, looking back on his accomplishments in his old age. And to him one of the most important aspects of his success is that it made his father proud of him. A man, no matter how great, cannot transcend his father, and a great man who is also a good man does not want to, but still stands in reverence before his father. The Moon is wonderful, and so is space travel. But not nearly as wonderful as the human soul, which is capable of love, admiration, and filial piety.
Happy Fathers Day!