October 10, 2013

Scott Carpenter, pioneering U.S. astronaut, dies at 88

He was the second American in orbit, and caused some tense moments when he overshot his landing zone.

The Associated Press

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Astronaut Scott Carpenter has his space suit adjusted in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Carpenter, the second American to orbit the Earth and one of the last surviving original Mercury 7 astronauts, died Thursday.

1962 AP file

His four hours, 39 minutes and 32 seconds of weightlessness were "the nicest thing that ever happened to me," Carpenter told a NASA historian. "The zero-g sensation and the visual sensation of spaceflight are transcending experiences and I wish everybody could have them."

His trip led to many discoveries about spacecraft navigation and space itself, such as that space offers almost no resistance, which he found out by trailing a balloon. Carpenter said astronauts in the Mercury program found most of their motivation from the space race with the Russians. When he completed his orbit of the Earth, he said he thought: "Hooray, we're tied with the Soviets," who had completed two manned orbits at that time.

Things started to go wrong on re-entry. He was low on fuel and a key instrument that tells the pilot which way the capsule is pointing malfunctioned, forcing Carpenter to manually take over control of the landing.

NASA's Mission Control then announced that he would overshoot his landing zone by more than 200 miles and, worse, they had lost contact with him.

Talking to a suddenly solemn nation, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite said, "We may have ... lost an astronaut."

Carpenter survived the landing that day.

Always cool under pressure — his heart rate never went above 105 during the flight — he oriented himself by simply peering out the space capsule's window. The Navy found him in the Caribbean, floating in his life raft with his feet propped up. He offered up some of his space rations.

Carpenter's perceived nonchalance didn't sit well some with NASA officials, particularly flight director Chris Kraft. The two feuded about it from then on.

Kraft accused Carpenter of being distracted and behind schedule, as well as making poor decisions. He blamed Carpenter for the low fuel.

On his website, Carpenter acknowledged that he didn't shut off a switch at the right time, doubling fuel loss. Still, Carpenter in his 2003 memoir said, "I think the data shows that the machine failed."

In the 1962 book "We Seven," written by the first seven astronauts, Carpenter wrote about his thoughts while waiting to be picked up after splashing down.

"I sat for a long time just thinking about what I'd been through. I couldn't believe it had all happened. It had been a tremendous experience, and though I could not ever really share it with anyone, I looked forward to telling others as much about it as I could. I had made mistakes and some things had gone wrong. But I hoped that other men could learn from my experiences. I felt that the flight was a success, and I was proud of that."

One of 110 candidates to be the nation's first astronauts, Carpenter became an instant celebrity in 1959 when he was chosen as a Mercury astronaut. The Mercury 7 were Carpenter, Glenn, L. Gordon Cooper Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Walter M. Schirra Jr., Alan B. Shepard Jr., and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton.

Like his colleagues, Carpenter basked in lavish attention and public rewards, but it wasn't exactly easy. The astronauts were subjected to grueling medical tests — keeping their feet in cold water, rapid spinning and tumbling and open-ended psychological quizzes. He had to endure forces 16 times gravity in his tests, far more than in space, something he said he managed with "great difficulty."

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