Scott Carpenter, 2nd US astronaut in orbit, dies

Astronaut Scott Carpenter, the second American to orbit the Earth, died Thursday after a stroke. He was 88.

Along with John Glenn, who flew three months before him, Carpenter was one of the last two surviving original Mercury 7 astronauts for the fledgling U.S. space program.

His wife, Patty Barrett, said Carpenter died of complications from a September stroke in a Denver hospice. He lived in Vail, Colo. “We’re going to miss him,” she said.

At a time when astronauts achieved fame on par with rock stars, folks across the country sat glued to their TV screens, anxiously awaiting the outcome of Carpenter’s 1962 ride. He overshot his landing by 288 miles, giving NASA and the nation an hour-long scare that he might not have made it back alive.

The fallout from that missed landing was a factor that kept NASA from launching Carpenter into space again. So he went from astronaut to “aquanaut” and lived at length on the sea floor — the only man to ever formally explore the two frontiers.

The launch into space was nerve-racking for the Navy pilot on the morning of May 24, 1962.

“You’re looking out at a totally black sky, seeing an altimeter reading of 90,000 feet and realize you are going straight up. And the thought crossed my mind: What am I doing?” Carpenter said 49 years later in a joint lecture with Glenn at the Smithsonian Institution.

The momentary fear was worth it, he said in 2011: “The view of Mother Earth and the weightlessness is an addictive combination of senses.”

For the veteran Navy officer, flying in space was more than a calling. In 1959, soon after being chosen one of NASA’s pioneering seven astronauts, Carpenter wrote about his hopes, concluding: “This is something I would willingly give my life for.”

“Curiosity is a thread that goes through all of my activity,” he told a NASA historian in 1999. “Satisfying curiosity ranks No. 2 in my book behind conquering a fear.”

Even before Carpenter ventured into space, he made history, again with Glenn. On Feb. 20, 1962, he gave the historic send-off to his predecessor in orbit: “Godspeed, John Glenn.” It was a spur of the moment phrase, Carpenter later said.

Three months later, Carpenter was launched into space from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and completed three orbits around Earth in his space capsule, the Aurora 7, which he named after the celestial event. It was just a coincidence Carpenter said that he grew up in Boulder, Colo., on the corner of Aurora Avenue and 7th Street.

When he completed trip around the Earth, he said he thought: “Hooray, we’re tied with the Soviets,” who had completed two manned orbits at that time.

But things started to go wrong on re-entry. He was low on fuel and a key instrument that told the pilot which way the capsule was pointing malfunctioned, forcing Carpenter to manually take over control of the landing.

NASA’s Mission Control then announced that he would overshoot his landing zone by more than 200 miles and, worse, they had lost contact with him. CBS newsman Walter Cronkite told viewers: “We may have … lost an astronaut.”

But Carpenter survived the landing that day.

Always cool under pressure — his heart rate never went above 105 during the flight — he oriented himself by simply peering out the space capsule’s window. The Navy found him in the Caribbean, floating in his life raft with his feet propped up.

Carpenter’s perceived nonchalance didn’t sit well some with NASA officials, particularly flight director Chris Kraft. The two feuded about it from then on.

Kraft accused Carpenter of being distracted and behind schedule, as well as making poor decisions. He blamed Carpenter for the low fuel.

On his website, Carpenter acknowledged that he didn’t shut off a switch at the right time, doubling fuel loss. Still, Carpenter in his 2003 memoir said, “I think the data shows that the machine failed.”

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