Scott Carpenter, One of the Original Seven Astronauts, Is Dead at 88

11.10.2013 16:50

M. Scott Carpenter, whose flight into
space in 1962 as the second American
to orbit the Earth was marred by
technical problems and ended with the
nation waiting anxiously to see if he
had survived a landing far from the
target site, died on Thursday in Denver.
He was 88 and one of the last two
surviving astronauts of America’s
original space program, Project
His wife, Patty Carpenter, announced
the death. No cause was given. Mr.
Carpenter had entered hospice care
recently after having a stroke.
His death leaves John H. Glenn Jr. , who
flew the first orbital mission on Feb.
20, 1962, and later became a United
States senator from Ohio, as the last
survivor of the Mercury 7.
When Lieutenant Commander
Carpenter splashed down off Puerto
Rico in his Aurora 7 capsule on May
24, 1962, after a harrowing mission, he
had fulfilled a dream.
“I volunteered for a number of
reasons,” he wrote in “ We Seven,” a
book of reflections by the original
astronauts published in 1962. “One of
these, quite frankly, was that I thought
this was a chance for immortality.
Pioneering in space was something I
would willingly give my life for.”
For 39 minutes after his capsule hit the
Caribbean , according to NASA, there
were fears that he had, in fact,
perished. He was 250 nautical miles
from his intended landing point after
making three orbits in a nearly five-
hour flight. Although radar and radio
signals indicated that his capsule had
survived re-entry, it was not
immediately clear that he was safe.
A Navy search plane finally spotted
him in a bright orange life raft. He
remained in it for three hours,
accompanied by two frogmen dropped
to assist him, before he was picked up
by a helicopter and taken to the
aircraft carrier Intrepid.
The uncertainty over his fate was only
one problem with the flight. The
equipment controlling the capsule’s
attitude (the way it was pointed) had
gone awry; moreover, he fired his re-
entry rockets three seconds late, and
they did not carry the anticipated
thrust. He also fell behind on his many
tasks during the flight’s final moments,
and his fuel ran low when he
inadvertently left two control systems
on at the same time.
Some NASA officials found fault with
his performance.
“He was completely ignoring our
request to check his instruments,”
Christopher Kraft, the flight director,
wrote in his memoir “Flight: My Life in
Mission Control” (2001). “I swore an
oath that Scott Carpenter would never
again fly in space. He didn’t.”
Mr. Carpenter was the fourth American
astronaut in space. Alan B. Shepard Jr.
and Virgil I. Grissom flew the first two
Mercury flights, and then Mr. Glenn
orbited the Earth. Mr. Carpenter was
the fourth man to go into orbit. Two
Russians in addition to Mr. Glenn had
preceded him.
Malcolm Scott Carpenter was born on
May 1, 1925, in Boulder, Colo. His
family moved to the New York area
when his father, Marion, got a job
there as a research chemist. His
mother, Florence, contracted
tuberculosis when Scott was a child,
and she took him with her when she
returned to Boulder to be treated at a
sanitarium. The marriage broke up,
and Scott was guided by his maternal
grandfather, Victor Noxon, who owned
and edited a Boulder newspaper. He
grew fond of a rugged outdoor life and
became enthralled by the prospect of
Mr. Carpenter became a naval aviation
cadet in 1943, but World War II ended
before he could obtain his wings. He
entered the University of Colorado
afterward and received a Navy
commission in 1949.
He flew patrol planes in the Pacific
during the Korean War, then trained as
a test pilot, and in April 1959 he was
among the seven military pilots chosen
as the Mercury astronauts, the
beginning of America’s quest to carry
out President John F. Kennedy’s goal to
put a man on the Moon.
Mr. Carpenter was highly accomplished
in communications and navigation in
addition to his flying skills. He was also
in outstanding physical condition,
exceeding several NASA performance
He was Mr. Glenn’s backup for his epic
orbital flight, and memorably
exclaimed, “Godspeed, John Glenn!” as
Mr. Glenn’s Friendship 7 achieved
But Donald K. Slayton was scheduled to
be the next astronaut in orbit. When
Mr. Slayton was grounded because of a
heart irregularity, Commander
Carpenter got the flight.
His mission called for greater pilot
involvement than Mr. Glenn’s. With
photographic tasks to perform and
science experiments to oversee, he
seemed to be having a grand time,
though the cabin became
uncomfortably warm. But serious
trouble arose when the equipment
controlling the way the capsule was
facing malfunctioned, requiring him to
determine the capsule’s proper attitude
“The last 30 minutes of the flight, in
retrospect, were a dicey time,” he
recalled in his memoir, “For Spacious
Skies ” (2002), written with his daughter
Kris Stoever. “At the time, I didn’t see it
that way. 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.”
Splashing down 250 nautical miles
from the nearest recovery ship, he got
out of his capsule through a top hatch,
then inflated his raft and waited to be
picked up.
Finally the voice of mission control,
Shorty Powers, announced, “An
aircraft in the landing area has sighted
the capsule and a life raft with a
gentleman by the name of Carpenter
riding in it.”
President Kennedy greeted Commander
Carpenter and his family at the White
House in June 1962 after the Carpenters
had been hailed at parades in Denver
and Boulder and honored at City Hall
in New York. A few days after Mr.
Carpenter’s mission, the University of
Colorado gave him a long-delayed
degree in aeronautical engineering at
its commencement, citing his “unique
experience with heat transfer during
his re-entry.” He had missed out on his
degree by not completing a course in
heat transfer as a senior in 1949.
But the issue of the flight’s brush with
disaster lingered. A NASA inquiry
determined that because of a 25-degree
error in the capsule’s alignment, the
retro rockets had fired at an angle that
caused a shallower than normal
descent. That accounted for 175 miles
of the overshoot, with the remaining 75
miles caused by the late firing of the
rockets and their failure to provide the
expected thrust.
Mr. Kraft, the flight director, had been
angry that Mr. Slayton was denied the
mission because of his heart problem,
and he was furious at Commander
Carpenter, feeling that he had not paid
sufficient attention to instructions
from the ground.
Commander Carpenter’s prospect of
obtaining another NASA mission was
ended by a motorbike injury that led to
his leaving NASA in 1967.
In a 2001 letter to The New York Times
in response to a review of Mr. Kraft’s
book, Mr. Carpenter wrote that “the
system failures I encountered during
the flight would have resulted in loss of
the capsule and total mission failure
had a man not been aboard.”
“My postflight debriefings and reports,”
he added, “led, in turn, to important
changes in capsule design and flight
In his book “ The Right Stuff ” (1979),
which told how the original astronauts
reflected the coolness-under-pressure
ethos of the test pilot, Tom Wolfe wrote
that Mr. Kraft’s criticism fueled NASA
engineers’ simmering resentment of the
astronauts’ status as pop-culture
heroes. The way Mr. Wolfe saw it,
word spread within NASA that Mr.
Carpenter had panicked, the worst sin
imaginable in what Mr. Wolfe called
the brotherhood of the right stuff.
Mr. Wolfe rejected that notion. “One
might argue that Carpenter had
mishandled the re-entry, but to accuse
him of panic made no sense in light of
the telemetered data concerning his
heart rate and his respiratory rate,” he
“The Right Stuff” was made into a
movie in 1983, with Charles Frank as
Mr. Carpenter.
Mr. Carpenter also carved a legacy as a
pioneer in the ocean’s depths. He was
the only astronaut to become an
aquanaut, spending a month living and
working on the ocean floor, at a depth
of 205 feet, in the Sealab project off
San Diego in the summer of 1965.
When he returned to NASA, he helped
develop underwater training to prepare
for spacewalks. He returned to the
Sealab program, but a thigh injury
resulting from his diving work kept
him from exploring the ocean floor
He retired from the Navy in 1969 with
the rank of commander, pursued
oceanographic and environmental
activities and wrote two novels
involving underwater adventures.
Mr. Carpenter’s first three marriages
ended in divorce. Besides his wife,
Patty Barrett Carpenter, Mr. Carpenter
is survived by four sons, Jay, Matthew,
Nicholas and Zachary; two daughters,
Kristen Stoever and Candace Carpenter;
a granddaughter; and five
stepgrandchildren. Two sons, Timothy
and Scott, died before him.
Mr. Glenn, the last Mercury 7 survivor,
is 92. Mr. Grissom died in 1967 in an
Apollo spacecraft fire during a
launching-pad test. Mr. Slayton died in
1993; Mr. Shepard, the first American
in space, died in 1998; L. Gordon
Cooper Jr. died in 2004; and Walter M.
Schirra Jr. died in 2007.
Among his many projects, Mr.
Carpenter joined with fellow astronauts
of the original Mercury 7 to create the
Astronaut Scholarship Foundation to
aid science and engineering students.
In 2006, he returned to the University
of Colorado to present a scholarship to
a student studying plasma physics.
He used the occasion to reflect on the
thrill he experienced. Spaceflights had
become “old hat,” he said, but his ardor
for space travel remained undimmed.
“The flight experience itself is
incredible,” The Rocky Mountain News
quoted him as saying. “It’s addictive.
It’s transcendent. It is a view of the
grand plan of all things that is simply
Mr. Carpenter attended ceremonial
events in his final years, when he was
reunited with fellow astronauts.
He joined with President George W.
Bush and Buzz Aldrin, the second man
to walk on the Moon, on Veterans Day
2008 in a ceremony on a Hudson River
pier aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air and
Space Museum, formerly the ship whose
helicopter had plucked him to safety.
Mr. Carpenter was on hand at Cape
Canaveral with Mr. Glenn and veterans
of the Project Mercury support teams at
events a few days before the 50th
anniversary of Mr. Glenn’s pioneering
orbital flight.
Both men had expressed hopes that
America’s space program would be
“John, thank you for your heroic effort
and all of you for your heroic effort,”
Mr. Carpenter told the gathering. “But
we stand here waiting to be outdone.”