Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury astronauts, died yesterday in Denver.
Cmdr. Carpenter’s sole mission to space in 1962 made him the fourth American to leave the planet and the second to orbit the Earth. It was a mission that established him as one of the pioneers of space travel, at a time when NASA was less than a decade old and when what humans expected to experience in space was saddled with huge unknowns. It was also a mission riddled with problems that for years afterwards would yield vexing questions about where to lay blame.
"As one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, he was in the first vanguard of our space program — the pioneers who set the tone for our nation's pioneering efforts beyond Earth,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement.
Carpenter was born on May 1, 1925, in Boulder, Colorado. His parents separated when his mother, Florence Kelso (Noxon) Carpenter, was hospitalized for tuberculosis, and he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents. In 1943, he enrolled in Colorado University, spending just one semester there before joining Navy's V-12a program for aspiring pilots at Colorado College.
But the Navy's flight training program ended with the close of World War II, and Carpenter returned to the University of Colorado as a still un-minted pilot. He then left again, before receiving a degree, to rejoin the Navy (he would be awarded a degree in aeronautical engineering from there in 1962). In 1951, he was assigned to Patrol Squadron 6 based at Barbers Point, Hawaii and for the next seven years was transferred around the US, working both as a test pilot and in surveillance.
In 1959, Carpenter was named as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts for NASA’s first manned space program, Project Mercury, and served as the backup for John Glenn’s flight into space, a trip that would make Glenn the first American to orbit Earth. Carpenter’s own turn in space came as something of a fluke: Donald K. (Deke) Slayton, due to be the second man in orbit, was grounded due to health problems. NASA selected Carpenter as his replacement.
So, on May 24, 1962, Carpenter lifted off aboard the Aurora 7 spacecraft, bound for a what was still a barely explored frontier, some 164 miles above the Earth: “It’s hard to realize this now, but there were so many unknowns in the early days,” he would later say, in an interview 32 years later.
During the three-orbit mission, he was tasked with carrying out a number of experiments that would help NASA lay the groundwork for a future lunar landing. This part of the mission went well. Carpenter achieved “all mission objectives,” NASA would later determine: he completed the experiments, some of which yielded valuable results, and identified the so-called “fireflies” previous astronauts had seen dancing in space as, in a disappointing turn, just wastewater from the space capsule’s sewage system. He also ate the first solid space food: small cubes of chocolate, figs, dates, and high-protein cereals.
But then it came time to return to Earth. That’s when things went wrong.
When he landed, plopping into the Atlantic Ocean, Carpenter received a call from Gus Grissom, the capsule communicator at the Cape Canaveral Control Center: Carpenter had overshot his landing, Grissom said. It would be at least hour on the water before NASA personnel would be able to reach him, he said.
Carpenter, it unfolded, was some 250 nautical miles from his target destination, putting him about 135 miles northeast of Puerto Rico. It was an error that, for a terrifying 40 minutes during his descent, had led NASA to fear that he might have died, as well as one that later led to a series of questions: Was the overshoot Carpenter’s fault? Was it possible that an astronaut, too distracted with the adventure of flying, had lost his focus in the craft?
In piecing together the events in the craft, NASA would find that Carpenter had oriented the small end of the capsule some 25 degrees to the right of where it should have been, a mistake that would put him at least 175 miles off course. He had also fired his retro rockets three seconds too late, a difference that added at least another 15 miles to the overshoot.
The rest of the distance may have owed to a mistake made during the first pass over Australia, when Carpenter had failed to turn off one attitude control system as he switched to another, for a time doubling the fuel expenditure. This meant that he was almost out of fuel when it came time for his descent back to Earth.
NASA also noted that, when the temperature control systems began to malfunction mid-flight, the cabin had warmed to 160 degrees before the situation was managed – a sign, it was said, that Carpenter had been too distracted to manage the craft.
“He wasn’t in the right attitude in the space craft,” said Chris Kraft, flight director at mission control, in a 1994 interview. Mr. Kraft had said after the mission that he planned to ensure that Carpenter did not fly again.
At a press conference after the incident, Carpenter acknowledged the criticisms of his flight: “I will admit to being preoccupied,” he said.
But he would also maintain that, despite the trouble he had encountered, he had kept his cool, managing the situation with adroit levelheadedness.
“I do remember thinking maybe I won’t make it, and this is really tight, but also thinking to myself I ought to be worried about this, but I really am not,” he said, in a 1994 interview.
“I thought at that time, I feel almost like I’m somewhere else, looking at this situation interested but not involved,” he said. “And I thought isn’t that handy.”
But Carpenter never did reach space again. While working with the Navy's SEALAB program in Bermuda, Carpenter badly injured his arm in a motorcycle accident, disqualifying him from space flight. Instead, he continued to work as an aquanaut in the SEALAB program, helping to pioneer underwater zero-gravity training and the development of underwater search-and-rescue technologies and other deep-sea capabilities.
In 1969, Carpenter retired from the navy to found Sea Sciences, Inc., a venture capital corporation oriented toward developing programs to protect ocean resources. His retirement included diving in most of the world’s oceans, including beneath the Arctic ice, working as a consultant to the aerospace, oceanic, and film industries, and writing two novels (both categorized as “underwater techno-thrillers”), as well as a memoir.
His long roster of awards includes the Legion of Merit, NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, and Navy Astronaut Wings. He is survived by his wife, seven children, two stepchildren, a granddaughter, and five step-grandchildren.