In May 1962, Scott Carpenter became the second American astronaut, after John Glenn, to orbit the Earth — and the first to survive a series of mishaps that might have ended in catastrophe.
After orbiting the Earth three times in his Mercury capsule, the Aurora 7, and reaching a height of 164 miles, Carpenter prepared for re-entry. But then, according to an account on his website, things started to go wrong. The automatic system that stabilized and controlled the retro rockets failed, leaving the capsule unable to hold the planned angle for descending into the atmosphere. Carpenter took over manual control, but he couldn’t get full thrust from the rockets and the capsule ended up overshooting the planned splashdown site by about 250 miles.
He also lost communication with NASA in Cape Canaveral. While NASA had tracked his location on radar, the agency neglected to convey that information to the news media, leading CBS’s Walter Cronkite to speculate that Carpenter had been lost at sea. Finally, after 55 minutes, a helicopter reached Carpenter, who was floating on a raft alongside his capsule, and eventually he was flown to a Navy ship, where he received a congratulatory call from President John F. Kennedy.
Here are eight interesting facts about Carpenter, who died on Oct. 10 at age 88 in Denver:
- Carpenter joined the U.S. Navy in 1943, but World War II ended before he could obtain his pilot’s wings. He later flew patrol missions during the Korean War and served as a test pilot before making the cut as one of the seven original Mercury astronauts in 1959.
- When Glenn made his historic orbital flight, it was Carpenter who uttered the famous line, “Godspeed, John Glenn!” as Glenn’s Friendship 7 achieved liftoff.
- Astronaut Donald “Deke” Slayton, who originally was scheduled for the mission, was grounded by a heart ailment.
- In a 2oo2 memoir, Carpenter recalled that when his equipment began to malfunction, he didn’t fully grasp the extent of the trouble he was in: “First, I was trained to avoid any intellectual comprehension of disaster — dwelling on a potential danger, or imagining what might happen. I was also too busy with the tasks at hand.”
- During the flight, Carpenter lost seven pounds.
- NASA flight director Christopher C. Kraft, in his own memoir, criticized Carpenter, saying that he hadn’t paid sufficient attention to instructions from the ground. Journalist Tom Wolfe, in his 1979 book The Right Stuff, wrote that some within NASA believed that Carpenter had panicked — an assertion Wolfe refuted by noting that monitoring of his heart and respiratory rate didn’t show any indications that he had lost his cool. Carpenter defended himself in a 2001 letter to the New York Times, noting that “in space, things happen so fast that only the pilot knows what to do, and even ground control can’t help.”
- Carpenter was the only U.S. astronaut also to participate in ocean exploration. In 1965, he spent a month living and working on the ocean floor off San Diego at a depth of 205 feet, as part of the Sealab project.
- After retiring from the Navy in 1969, Carpenter continued his oceanography work, wrote two novels, and helped create the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation to aid science and engineering students.
Here’s a short clip from a 1999 oral history interview with Carpenter.
Photo of Carpenter in 2010: Jen Scheer via Flickr
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