“Lucky to be Alive”: The Controversy of Aurora 7

John Glenn (right) congratulates Scott Carpenter after his five-hour, three-orbit voyage. In December 1960, each of the Mercury Seven was asked to 'peer-vote' which of their colleagues was the best candidate for America's first astronaut. Glenn placed Carpenter at the top of his list. Photo Credit: NASA

Fifty years ago, this week, Scott Carpenter became America’s second man in orbit. He was one of the most accomplished members of the ‘Mercury Seven’. In fact, at a December 1960 peer vote, his contemporary John Glenn had placed Carpenter at the top of his personal list for who he thought should be the first into space. When he finally flew into orbit, Carpenter was tasked with one of the most comprehensive programmes of scientific research ever seen on a manned mission: astronomical observations, Earth observations, studies of visibility and flying abilities and medical checks. Sadly, Carpenter’s voyage aboard Aurora 7 also suffered from more than its fair share of technical problems, including a faulty pitch horizon scanner and a worrisome decline in fuel quantities in both his manual and automatic tanks. The consequence would be a mission that remains controversial to this very day.

In his autobiography, For Spacious Skies, co-authored with his daughter, Kris Stoever, Carpenter noted that Flight Director Chris Kraft became increasingly frustrated with his performance after concluding that the astronaut had deliberately ignored a request to perform an attitude check. Kraft also voiced serious concerns that Carpenter should tightly curb his automatic fuel use prior to retrofire. By this time, Aurora 7 was restricted to long periods of drifting flight, with both automatic and manual fuel quantities now dropping to less than 50 percent. Years later, Assistant Flight Director Gene Kranz would blame ground controllers for waiting too long in addressing Aurora 7’s problematic fuel status and felt that they should have been more forceful in getting on with the checklists. “A thorough attitude check, during the first orbit,” added Carpenter, “would probably have helped to diagnose the persistent, intermittent and constantly varying malfunction of the pitch horizon scanner. By the third orbit, it was all too late.”

During his period of drifting, Carpenter would recall one of the most spectacular views of the entire mission: a sunrise, witnessed four hours and 19 minutes after launch, shortly before retrofire. “Stretching away for hundreds of miles to the north and the south,” he wrote, sunrise presented “a glittering, iridescent arc” of colours, which faded into a purplish-blue and blended into the blackness of space. This blackness, he wrote in his post-flight report, together with brilliant shades of blue and green from the sunlit Earth, were “colours hard to imagine or duplicate because of their wonderful purity. Everywhere the Earth is flecked with white clouds”. The South Atlantic, he recounted, had a cloud coverage of 90 percent, but western Africa was completely clear and Carpenter had a stunning view of Lake Chad. He saw patchy clouds over the Indian Ocean, a fairly clear Pacific and an obscured western half of Baja California.

A beautiful view of Earth and the blackness of space, captured by Scott Carpenter's hand-held camera. Photo Credit: NASA

His long period of drifting flight also meant that he also had the opportunity to witness a phenomenon known as ‘fireflies’, seen previously by John Glenn. By rapping his knuckles on the inside of the spacecraft, he found that he could raise a cloud of them and determined that they came from Aurora 7 itself. “I can rap the hatch and stir off hundreds of them,” he reported. “Rap the side of the capsule: huge streams come out.” To him, they appeared like snowflakes and did not appear to be ‘luminous’, varying in size, brightness and colour. Some were grey, some white and one in particular, he said, looked like a helical shaving from a lathe. Carpenter decided, with only minutes remaining before retrofire, to yaw the spacecraft in order to get a better view with the photometer. Shortly thereafter, he passed over Hawaii and was told to reorient Aurora 7, go to autopilot and begin stowing equipment and running through pre-retrofire checklists.

More problems arose, however. Four hours and 26 minutes after launch, with retrofire barely six minutes away, Carpenter reported that the automatic system did not appear to be working properly. In his autobiography, he later recounted that the autopilot was not holding the spacecraft steady and, indeed, achieving the correct pitch and yaw attitudes were critical to ensuring that he would descend along a pre-determined re-entry flight path and plop into the waters of the Atlantic, just south-east of Florida. Carpenter promptly switched to the fly-by-wire controls, but unfortunately forgot to shut off the manual system, which wasted even more fuel. At around the same time, a pair of fuses overheated and the astronaut noticed smoke drifting through the cabin.

Concerned that the critically timed retrofire would now be delayed by the autopilot malfunction, Carpenter initiated it manually. He fired the rockets three seconds late; a tiny error of timing, but enough at his immense velocity to produce a splashdown point several kilometres ‘long’ in the prime recovery area. Although he radioed that his attitude was good, privately, Carpenter was not sure and added that “the gyros are not quite right”. Years later, he described the difficulty in dividing his attention between two attitude reference systems and attempting to accomplish a perfect retrofire. “It appears I pretty much nailed the pitch,” he wrote, “but the nose of Aurora 7, while pitched close to the desirable negative 34 degrees, was canted about 25 degrees off to the right, in yaw, at the moment of retrofire. By the end of the retrofire event, I had essentially corrected the error in yaw, which limited the overshoot. But the damage was already done.”

The 25-degree cant alone would have caused Aurora 7 to miss its planned splashdown point by around 280 km; however, the three-second delay in firing the retrorockets and a thrust decrement of three percent below normal contributed an additional 120 km to the overshoot. On the other hand, if Carpenter had not bypassed the autopilot and manually fired the retrorockets, he could have splashed down even further afield.

Although Carpenter's heartbeat had been clearly heard in Mission Control throughout re-entry, the public at large had no idea if the astronaut had survived his perilous descent. Here, Aurora 7 and Carpenter are readied for winching out of the water. Photo Credit: NASA

At this stage, the spacecraft’s fuel supplies read barely 20 percent for manual and five percent for automatic. Carpenter survived re-entry, but experienced a wild ride through the atmosphere, as Aurora 7 oscillated between plus and minus 30 degrees in pitch and yaw. The astronaut was able to damp out many oscillations with the fly-by-wire controls and, indeed, the post-flight report would commend him as having “demonstrated an ability to orient the vehicle so as to effect a successful re-entry”, providing clear evidence that a human pilot could overcome malfunctioning automatic systems.

Carpenter’s descent and Aurora 7’s large trapezoid window offered him a spectacular view of Earth. “I can make out very small farmland, pastureland below,” he reported, four hours and 37 minutes after launch. “I see individual fields, rivers, lakes, roads, I think.” Five minutes later, he was informed that weather conditions in the anticipated recovery zone were good. By this time, Carpenter began to see the first hints of an intense orange glow as particles from the ablative heat shield formed an enormous ‘wake’ behind him. Then came distinct green flashes, which the astronaut assumed were the ionising beryllium shingles on Aurora 7’s hull. As the re-entry G forces peaked at 11 times their normal terrestrial load, cardiac readings at Mission Control revealed the substantial physical effort needed by Carpenter to speak words, announce observations and make status reports.

Five minutes before splashdown, at an altitude of 7.6 km, he manually deployed the drogue parachute, which steadied the capsule and damped out what he had earlier described as “some pretty good oscillations”. The drogue was soon followed by the main chute, again manually deployed, although Carpenter’s announcements fell on deaf ears. No one could hear his transmissions and Capcom Gus Grissom was forced to broadcast ‘in the blind’ to inform him that his splashdown point would be some 400 km ‘long’ and advise that pararescue forces would arrive on the scene within the hour. A minute before splashdown, Carpenter acknowledged Grissom’s call. The impact with the water, 215 km north-east of Puerto Rico, he wrote later, was not hard, but Aurora 7 was totally submerged for a few seconds. It popped back up and listed sharply, 60 degrees over to one side, before the landing bag filled and began to act as a sea anchor.

Ordinarily, Mercury astronauts departed their craft through the side hatch, but Carpenter was the only one to exit through the nose. He is pictured demonstrating the procedure during pre-flight training. Photo Credit: NASA

Keen to get out as soon as possible, Carpenter exited the capsule through the nose, becoming the only Mercury astronaut to do so. It took him four minutes and required him to remove the instrument panel from the bulkhead, exposing a narrow egress up through the spacecraft’s nose, where the two parachutes had resided. As he squirmed his way through the cramped space, he decided not to deploy his pressure suit’s neck dam. He was already overheating and felt that the gently swelling seas would make it unnecessary. Next, still perched in the nose of the capsule, he dropped his life raft into the water, where it quickly inflated and a search and rescue homing beacon came on automatically. The latter would guide recovery forces to his position.

As he prepared himself for a long wait, Carpenter tied the life raft to the side of the capsule, finally deployed his neck dam, said a brief prayer and relaxed. He stretched out on his raft and was joined, he wrote later, by “a curious, 18-inch-long black fish who wanted nothing more than to visit”. It was his first physical contact with another living being and his first moment of calm in four hours and 56 minutes since launch.

For those watching the mission from afar, however, there was no relaxation. At Cape Canaveral, CBS veteran Walter Cronkite played up the drama by describing Mission Control’s repeated attempts to contact Aurora 7. “While thousands watch and pray,” Cronkite told his audience, “certainly here at Cape Canaveral, the silence is almost intolerable.” In Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, a hush fell over the crowd gathered before a huge CBS screen, while in the White House a direct telephone link with Cape Canaveral had been set up to provide President Kennedy with news. In fact, the homing beacon had already provided Carpenter’s co-ordinates and his heartbeat had been clearly heard in Mission Control throughout re-entry.

Aboard the destroyer USS John R. Pierce (the ‘Fierce Pierce’), the attitude was quite different, thanks to the reception of a strong signal from the beacon. “Believe you me,” reported CBS journalist Bill Evenson from aboard the destroyer, “this bucket of bolts is really rolling now and what a happy crew we’ve got!”

It was a Lockheed P2V Neptune, one of the same breed of patrol aircraft that Carpenter himself flew, a decade earlier, in Korea, that finally greeted him. The astronaut signalled the pilot with a hand mirror and was acknowledged when the Neptune began circling his position. One hour and seven minutes after splashdown, at 1:48 pm EST, Airman First Class John Heitsch and Sergeant Ray McClure from an SC-54 transport aircraft joined the astronaut in the water, opened their rafts and tethered them together. Carpenter offered them some of his food rations, which were politely declined. Eventually, the astronaut was picked up by the USS Intrepid, originally earmarked as the prime recovery ship, but delayed in its arrival by Aurora 7’s 400 km overshoot. The Fierce Pierce, meanwhile, successfully recovered the spacecraft itself and delivered it, on 28 May, to Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico.

Scott Carpenter is helped into his silver pressure suit by technician Joe Schmitt. This promising astronaut would fall foul of the problems experienced during his mission and would never again draw a crew assignment, even in a backup capacity. Photo Credit: NASA

Carpenter was hot and wet after almost an hour on his back on the launch pad, followed by five hours in space and more than an hour in the Atlantic. Soon after boarding the rescue helicopter, he borrowed a pocket knife, cut a hole in the sock of his space suit and let his sweat and seawater drain out of the makeshift toe hole. Army physician Richard Rink asked him how he felt. In true Mercury Seven fashion, came the clipped response: “Fine”.

The situation within Mission Control, though, was far from fine. Deke Slayton had been stationed at the capcom’s console at the Muchea tracking site in Australia, which he described as “a good place to be, all things considered”. Flight Director Chris Kraft, and many other mission controllers, were furious, accusing Carpenter of having recklessly endangered himself during a botched re-entry. Their anger was exacerbated when, aboard the recovery ship, the astronaut had off-handedly remarked that “I didn’t know where I was…and they didn’t know where I was, either”. One controller is said to have retorted: “Bullshit! That son-of-a-bitch is damned lucky to be alive!”

Kraft, apparently, was considerably more caustic. In his autobiography, Flight, he wrote of Carpenter’s “cavalier dismissal of a life-threatening problem” – the failure of the spacecraft’s navigational instruments – and troublesome re-entry and swore that the astronaut would never fly again. Scott Carpenter had indeed seen the end of his spacegoing days and after a month-long tour in the Navy’s Sealab-II underwater habitat, off the coast of La Jolla, California, resigned from NASA in 1967. Some have seen Carpenter’s mistakes and omissions as evidence that the early Mercury flights were overloaded with experiments and manoeuvres and that Mission Control was partly to blame for failing to identify the horizon pitch scanner malfunction. Tom Wolfe wrote that speculation that Carpenter had panicked was unlikely, “in light of the telemetred data concerning his heart rate and his respiratory rate”.

Aurora 7, though harrowing, was certainly viewed as a success by Carpenter’s family and hundreds of thousands of residents of his home state, Colorado. In Denver, a 300,000-strong crowd cheered the nation’s newest astronaut son in their own ticker-tape parade. The city of Boulder declared 29 May 1962 as Scott Carpenter Day, sponsoring its biggest celebration, and the University of Colorado named the astronaut its most distinguished graduate. Years earlier, Carpenter’s own father, a research chemist, had achieved the same accolade from the same institution. In the case of the younger Carpenter, however, it also came with the formal conferring of his engineering degree, which he completed in 1949, save for a final examination in thermodynamics. The university granted the degree on the grounds that his “subsequent training as an astronaut has more than made up for the deficiency in the subject of heat transfer”.

Carpenter’s flight brought Project Mercury to a crossroads. Speaking before the Exchange Club in Hampton, Virginia, NASA engineer Joe Dodson pointed out that the lessons learned from Glenn and Carpenter were pleasing and speculation arose that a day-long mission, to rival that of Gherman Titov in Vostok 2, could be attempted as early as 1963. Indeed, many congressional observers supported a flight to surpass that of Titov. Within a year of Scott Carpenter’s mission – a mission of so many mixed blessings – Project Mercury would draw to a triumphant conclusion and would open the way for Project Gemini and, later, an assault on reaching the Moon itself.

2 comments to “Lucky to be Alive”: The Controversy of Aurora 7

  • Christopher Kraft

    I would suggest you read Carpenter’s written account of his flight in “We Seven”.
    You will find it is starkly different then the one written in the book by he and his daughter over 40 years later and recounted in your recent story.
    Also, I would suggest you read my account of his flight in “FLIGHT”. It tells it like it was!
    You might also read the official report of his flight in NASA documentation


  • Bruce P.

    His flight demonstrated that of “the seven” one was chosen in error. Some people are not cut out for spaceflight mission support- both on the ground and flight crew. Fortunately as far as the ground support goes, ferreting out the less than stellar personnel is usually done early on. Personnel that have zero clue about prioritizing the goals, needs and requirements of a mission have no business in that arena. Chris Kraft was and is simply right on.

    Bruce P.