Scott Carpenter: Astronaut who became the second American to orbit the Earth

‘He was enjoying himself,’ wrote Tom Wolfe of the astronaut’s voyage, ‘having a grand time’

Scott Carpenter was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and the second American to orbit the Earth. Of the Mercury 7 crew, glorified by Life magazine and immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, only John Glenn, the retired senator from Ohio, survives.

Carpenter’s life extended from outer space to the depths of the ocean. His five-hour, three-orbit journey in space on 24 May 1962 was marred by a wildly off-course landing and a brief spasm of national anxiety in which Americans feared he might have died. He later denied suggestions that he had been joyriding and had been complicit in overshooting his target. He never flew in space again, becoming an aquanaut and devoting much of his energy to long-duration undersea missions.

Like his fellow astronauts on Project Mercury – Glenn, L Gordon Cooper Jr, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Walter Schirra Jr, Alan Shepard Jr and Donald “Deke” Slayton – Carpenter became a national celebrity when he joined the Nasa space-flight programme in 1959. It was Carpenter who uttered the famous line, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” when Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, on 20 February 1962. Carpenter became the second when he jumped ahead in the Mercury manifest after Slayton had to step aside with a minor heart problem.

The mission did not attract the attention given to Glenn’s flight, and most Americans assumed it would go as planned. Carpenter blasted off from Cape Canaveral in the capsule Aurora 7 on top of a Mercury-Atlas rocket. He climbed to an altitude of 165 miles and circled the planet at 17,500mph.

“He was enjoying himself,” Tom Wolfe wrote. “He talked more, ate more, drank more water, and did more with the capsule than any of them ever had. He obviously loved all the experiments. He was swinging the capsule this way and that way, taking photographs a mile a minute, making detailed observations of the sunrises and horizon, releasing balloons, tending his bottles, taking readings with his densitometer, having a grand time.”

Carpenter also discovered the origin of the mysterious “fireflies” seen by Glenn during his earlier flight: when he inadvertently banged the hatch of the capsule he saw snowflakes fly by the window, and realised they came from the capsule. But on the way home, attitude-control equipment malfunctioned and the Aurora 7 ran low on fuel. Because of the loss of automatic control fuel, Carpenter was ordered by Flight Director Christopher Kraft to fly his vehicle manually to conserve his automatic fuel or face being told to end his journey after two orbits.

Carpenter was slightly late firing his retro-rockets, and the capsule re-entered the atmosphere at too shallow an angle. The re-entry radio black-out lasted twice as long as expected, and for a few minutes everyone wondered if Aurora 7 and its pilot had survived. Carpenter wound up more than 250 miles from the splashdown area in the Atlantic, and for about 40 minutes no one knew where he was. Walter Cronkite reported on CBS News that America may have lost an astronaut.

A military pilot finally picked up the signal of an electronic beacon from Aurora 7, and 20 minutes later, the pilot said he could see the 37-year-old astronaut “sitting comfortably in his raft.” After three hours, Carpenter was retrieved by the USS Intrepid.

“Carpenter Saved After 3 Orbits,” announced the front-page story in The Washington Post. President Kennedy heaped praise on Carpenter for his courage and on the Navy for rescuing him. In a phone call with the president, Carpenter apologised “for not having aimed a little bit better on re-entry.”

Like the other astronauts, Carpenter was lionised and received a medal and parades. The University of Colorado awarded him a diploma that had been denied to him in 1949, when he left before completing a course on heat transfer. The university’s president, Quigg Newton, said Carpenter’s “subsequent training as an astronaut has more than made up for his deficiency in the subject of heat transfer.”

But some in Nasa were displeased with his performance, including Kraft, who criticised him years later in a memoir. In 2001, responding to a review of Kraft’s memoir, Carpenter wrote a letter to The New York Times defending his 1962 performance.

“The flight plan ... called for a number of radical space maneuvers, more photography, more observation and some experiments, all of which I accomplished, in addition to returning safely to earth with the capsule unharmed,” he wrote. “These facts alone should be enough to vindicate the flight of Aurora 7. 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 post-flight debriefings and reports led, in turn, to important changes in capsule design and future flight plans.”

Malcolm Scott Carpenter was born in 1925 in Colorado. His parents divorced when he was three and he grew up primarily in the home of his grandfather, a newspaper editor. He attended the University of Colorado, where he enrolled in the Navy’s flight training programme and studied aeronautical engineering. He fell one course requirement short of earning a diploma, re-entered the Navy in 1949 and served in the Korean War. After training as a test pilot and serving as an intelligence officer he was picked to be an astronaut in Project Mercury, a job that required not only aeronautical derring-do but an arduous journey through the public-relations machinery of Nasa.

After his space flight, Carpenter joined the US Navy’s Man-in-the-Sea programme and spent 30 days underwater in 1965 in a Navy vessel, SeaLab II. While 200 feet below the ocean surface he spoke on the phone to two astronauts orbiting the Earth in a Gemini capsule. He retired from the Navy as a commander in 1969 and founded Sea Sciences, a venture capital firm, and worked with the ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau. He wrote several books, including a 2003 autobiography, For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut.

In 1999, as part of a Nasa oral history project, Carpenter reflected on his experience in zero gravity on that day in 1962: “You have to realise that my experience with zero G, although transcendent, and more fun than I can tell you about, was in the light of current space-flight accomplishments, very brief. But it was the nicest thing that ever happened to me.”

Malcolm Scott Carpenter, astronaut and aquanaut: born Boulder, Colorado 1 May 1925; married firstly Rene Louise Price (marriage dissolved; four children), secondly Maria Roach (marriage dissolved; two children), thirdly Barbara Curtin (marriage dissolved; one child), fourthly Patty Barrett; died Denver 10 October 2013.