Obituary: M. Scott Carpenter / Mercury 7 astronaut who orbited Earth in 1962

May 1, 1925 - Oct. 10, 2013

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M. Scott Carpenter, whose flight into space in 1962 as the second American to orbit the Earth was marred by technical glitches and ended with the nation waiting anxiously to see if he had survived a landing far from the target site, died Thursday in Denver. He was 88 and one of the last two surviving astronauts of America's original space program, Project Mercury.

His wife, Patty Carpenter, announced the death, but no cause was given. He had entered hospice care recently after having a stroke.

His death leaves John Glenn, 92, who flew the first orbital mission on Feb. 20, 1962, and later became a U.S. senator from Ohio, as the last survivor of the Mercury 7.

When Lt. Cmdr. 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 almost an hour after his capsule hit the Caribbean, there were fears that he had, in fact, perished. He was 250 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 Shepard and Virgil "Gus" 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 May 1, 1925, in Boulder, Colo. His family moved to the New York City region 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. Scott grew fond of a rugged outdoor life and became enthralled by the prospect of flying.

He became a naval aviation cadet in 1943, attending Colorado College, but World War II ended before he could obtain his wings. He entered the University of Colorado afterward but left school without a degree 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 the only original astronaut without a college degree, but he was highly accomplished in communications and navigation in addition to his flying skills. He was also in outstanding physical condition, exceeding several NASA performance standards.

He was Mr. Glenn's backup for his epic orbital flight, and became his Capsule Communicator (CapCom), or radio link, famously exclaiming, "Godspeed, John Glenn," as Mr. Glenn's Friendship 7 achieved liftoff.

But Donald "Deke" Slaton was scheduled to be the next astronaut in orbit. When Slaton was grounded because of a heart irregularity, Mr. Carpenter got the flight.

His mission called for greater pilot involvement than Mr. Glenn's, and with photographic tasks to perform and science experiments to oversee, Mr. Carpenter seemed to be having a grand time, although 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 visually.

"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 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."

Kennedy greeted Mr. 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 City. 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. Carpenter's prospect of obtaining another NASA mission was ended by a motorbike injury that led to his leaving NASA in 1967.

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. He retired from the Navy in 1969 with the rank of commander.


First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM

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