Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, died this week. That leaves only John Glenn as the sole survivor of the group. While Glenn seemingly had the golden touch all the way through his time at NASA (not so much in politics, but still pretty impressive), Carpenter had problems.
When Carpenter’s mission, Aurora 7, was launched on May 24, 1962, the United States was locked in a perpetual wrestling match with the Soviet Union, and the NASA program was a key element of President Kennedy’s strategy to compete with Nikita Khruschev. Any failure of any kind was seen as a dent in our nation’s image, and when Carpenter’s tiny space capsule entered the re-entry phase of the mission, it was NASA’s feeling that their pilot had wasted fuel, which then led to…uh…him landing 288 miles off target.
Now in astronomical terms, 288 miles is a trip to the mailbox, but in the Atlantic Ocean, it led to Walter Cronkite telling a shaken nation “that we may have lost an astronaut.”
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When the Navy recovery team finally found him, bobbing in his inflatable raft, they felt he was a bit too relaxed-looking, considering. His feet were up, and he was chatty. I don’t think he had stashed a bottle of scotch during the flight or anything, but apparently, according to the NASA flight director, he didn’t exhibit the right amount of contrition. This led to Carpenter’s removal from the rotation. There was continuing controversy over precisely who’s fault it was, but at the time, it was blamed on Carpenter. Quietly.
He later returned to NASA, working on the lunar lander program, but he turned his attention to oceanography later in his career, which was indeed very distinguished. He dived in every ocean, worked extensively with Jacques Cousteau, and once spent 30 days in something called SeaLab II, an underwater research station. He was roomies with nine other guys, and I cannot imagine the sock smell was easy to escape. So he gets some bonus points with me there.
He later tried to get back into NASA, but he had broken his arm in a motorcycle accident, and it wasn’t mobile enough for the rigors of spaceflight. So that was it.
Carpenter’s death made me feel the usual Baby Boomer nostalgia for the early days of NASA, and I will try not to dwell on how Dramatic It All Was and How Riveted We All Were, but it was and we were. Going up on any rocket and particularly one based on 1962 technology is, to put it minimally, breathtakingly brave. The other thing his death made me think of was how one small event in life can brand you for the rest of whatever time you had left.
In Carpenter’s case, he (possibly) wasn’t watching the gas gauge. How many times have you done that?
You can’t just start hitchhiking with a gas can in orbit.
Anyway, here’s to Scott Carpenter and human frailty, and, most importantly, his bravery.
I should stop at the gas station on the way home.