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’

Washington Post

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan