A Man Who Inspired: The Life and Legend of Scott Carpenter (1925-2013)

Chrysler artist Cece Bibby chats with Scott Carpenter, after stencilling the name "Aurora 7" onto his spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA
Chrysler artist Cece Bibby chats with Scott Carpenter, after stencilling the name “Aurora 7” onto his spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

Yesterday’s tragic passing of Scott Carpenter—one of America’s “Original Seven” Mercury astronauts and the nation’s second man to orbit Earth—following a recent stroke has deprived the world of yet another pioneer from the early days of our exploration of the cosmos. Only John Glenn, now 92, remains alive from the tight-knit group of test pilots and aviators who were selected by NASA in April 1959 and went on to begin the U.S. journey in space. As recounted by Mike Killian yesterday, Carpenter’s Mercury-Atlas-7 (MA-7) flight in May 1962 “remains one of the most comprehensive scientific research missions ever flown in human spaceflight.” And the man himself had traversed a long and tortuous path to enter the hallowed ranks of the Mercury Seven … and his flight courted much controversy.

Carpenter should not have been the pilot of MA-7 at all. The mission’s original pilot was Donald “Deke” Slayton, but a minor heart issue caused him to be dropped in March 1962, less than 10 weeks before launch. In theory, Slayton’s backup, Wally Schirra, should have stepped into his shoes, but since Carpenter had recently been primed as John Glenn’s backup—his name was announced instead at a press conference on 16 March. “I figured,” wrote Mercury Operations Director Walt Williams, years later, “that MA-7 was likely to be more a repeat of John’s flight than anything groundbreaking, so why not give it to Scott, since he had already trained for something similar. We were thinking about a seven-orbit flight later in the year and that would be perfect for Wally.

“Carpenter had trained since October 1961 in Glenn’s shadow and had accrued nearly 80 hours of pre-flight checkout and training time, which was far more than Schirra or even Slayton had accumulated during their MA-7 preparations. Schirra found out about the change in mission assignments during an informal gathering at the Carpenters’ home. It was something of an ordeal for all involved. Slayton’s anger at having lost MA-7, coupled with Schirra’s annoyance at having been dropped in favor of Glenn’s backup, led Carpenter to spend more time apologizing than training. One evening, he got home and told his wife, Rene: “Damn it, I’m tired of apologizing. This is my flight now.”

Mercury astronauts John Glenn (3rd from left) and Scott Carpenter (far left) will headline NASA's “Celebrating 50 Years of Americans in Orbit" event at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex February 18. Photo Credit: NASA
The “Mercury Seven,” pictured in an early training photograph. From left to right are Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Wally Schirra, Al Shepard, and Deke Slayton. Photo Credit: NASA

Although he felt no bitterness toward Carpenter, Schirra commented in his autobiography, Schirra’s Space, that he “felt the system was rotten.” As far as he was concerned, Carpenter might have been through test pilot school, but he was a multi-engine aviator and had been a communications officer aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier … not a fighter pilot. In Schirra’s mind, Carpenter represented “black-shoe Navy”—a seagoing fleet officer—and in spite of his impressive flying credentials he was not a “brown-shoe” naval aviator. “To make it worse,” Schirra wrote, “I was designated Scott’s backup! I did my best and worked my tail off on Scott’s mission. I don’t think anyone knew how angry I was.” Even Schirra, though, had to admit that his disappointment was nothing compared to the devastating news Deke Slayton had just received.

The man who would effectively replace them both had, in a December 1960 peer vote, actually been John Glenn’s personal choice for the first American in space. Malcolm Scott Carpenter had been born in Boulder, Colo., on 1 May 1925, the son of chemist Dr. Marion Scott Carpenter and Florence “Toye” Noxon. Both parents met as undergraduates at the University of Colorado, but separated soon after their son’s birth and divorced in 1945. His mother was hospitalized with tuberculosis for several years in Carpenter’s infancy and the young boy—nicknamed “Buddy”—attended school in Boulder, graduating in 1943 and entering the Navy’s V-12a wartime officer flight training program at the University of Colorado.

A year later, he moved to St. Mary’s Preflight School in Moraga, Calif., undergoing six months of training, followed by another four months at Ottumwa, Iowa. On his personal website, Carpenter would write that, despite his relief when World War II ended, as a fledgling naval aviator he “was deeply dejected that I had not taken part in what I assumed was the greatest aeronautical contest of the century.” Carpenter and his classmates logged only a few hours in the Stearman N2S “Yellow Peril” training aircraft when atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; three months later, he was demobilized. He did, however, win a regimental wrestling contest whilst a member of V-12a.

NASA Astronaut Scott Carpenter during a suiting exercise in 1962.  Photo Credit: NASA
NASA Astronaut Scott Carpenter during a suiting exercise in 1962. Photo Credit: NASA

At the end of the war, Carpenter enrolled in the University of Colorado to read mechanical engineering, with an aeronautical option. “CU did not then offer a degree in aeronautical engineering,” he wrote on his website. A near-fatal car accident in September 1946 severely disrupted his studies, but he returned to university early the following year. However, he missed his final examination in thermodynamics, leaving him one requirement shy of a complete undergraduate degree. He would make up for this on his one and only spaceflight. Carpenter married Rene Price in September 1948 and would father five children—four of whom survived—from the first of his four marriages.

He then joined the Navy, receiving flight training at Pensacola, Fla., and Corpus Christi, Texas, before working in the Fleet Airborne Electronics Training School in San Diego, Calif., and within a transitional training unit for Lockheed’s P2V Neptune patrol bomber. In his autobiography, For Spacious Skies, he wrote that the decision to fly patrol aircraft was a difficult one. “His boyhood dream, held all through high school and beyond was to be a fighter pilot,” Carpenter and his daughter Kris Stoever wrote in third-person narrative. “But he was now…a husband and a father … His ego demanded he be a fighter pilot, but he remembered as a boy how he had hated being fatherless.” Still, in November 1951 he was assigned to Patrol Squadron Six at Barbers Point, Hawaii, and, throughout the Korean conflict, engaged in anti-submarine patrols, shipping surveillance, and aerial mining activities in the Yellow Sea, South China Sea, and Formosa Straits.

After Korea, Carpenter entered the Navy’s Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., graduating in the top third of his class, and subsequently conducted flight testing of the A-3D Skywarrior strategic bomber and the F-11F and F-9F fighters. He also tested other naval aircraft—single- and multi-engine and propeller-driven fighters, attack planes, patrol bombers, and seaplanes—before attending Naval General Line School at Monterey, Calif., in 1957 and the Naval Air Intelligence School in Washington, D.C., the following year. His next assignment, in August 1958, placed him on the Hornet anti-submarine aircraft carrier, and he was serving as an air intelligence officer when he received cryptic orders from the Pentagon in January 1959 to report to Washington for a classified briefing.

It was whilst on their way to the airport, after discussing the endless possibilities, that Rene, reading her copy of Time magazine, spotted a report about Project Mercury—America’s effort to put a man into space. “Their excitement mounted,” Carpenter wrote in his autobiography, “as they went through a list that described, well, Lieutenant M. Scott Carpenter.”

Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter lifts off from Cape Canaveral on May 24, 1962, in his Aurora 7 capsule. The fourth American in space and second American to orbit Earth, Carpenter spent nearly five hours testing equipment and taking photographs before splashing down. Photo Credit: NASA
Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter lifts off from Cape Canaveral on 24 May 1962 in his Aurora 7 capsule. The fourth American in space and second American to orbit Earth, Carpenter spent nearly five hours testing equipment and taking photographs before splashing down. Photo Credit: NASA

Whilst still assigned to the Hornet, he was invited to attend the second stage of testing, but met with the resistance of his skipper, Captain Marshall White, who emphatically declared that the young lieutenant was about to embark on an important training cruise. Carpenter’s entreaties fell on deaf ears, it seemed, and he was obliged to call NASA’s Dr. Allen Gamble, who personally contacted the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke. The admiral—betwixt some “real sailor language”—agreed to deal with the matter. He spoke to White and, wrote Carpenter, the skipper “went on that training cruise without his air intelligence officer.”

Interestingly, as the selection process for Project Mercury got underway, Carpenter and Deke Slayton were members of the same group at a series of punishing physiological and psychological tests at Dr. Randy Lovelace’s aerospace medicine clinic in Albuquerque, N.M. Slayton would later write that he had been particularly impressed to see Carpenter, during one test, blow into a tube of mercury “for about three minutes, twice as long as anybody else!” Carpenter’s remarkable endurance was also demonstrated after selection, when, during a centrifuge run at Johnsville, Penn., he devised a breathing technique, akin to explosive grunting, which allowed him to withstand 18 G with few ill-effects.

Over the course of a week at the Lovelace Clinic, every spot on Carpenter’s body was sampled, poked, measured, and prodded. His throat was scraped, stool and semen specimens were taken, electricity was zapped into his hand, and an intensely uncomfortable “steel eel” was inserted into the rectum. Wally Schirra later described it as “an embarrassment, a degrading experience … sick doctors working on well patients.”

Survivors of the clinic devised a tradition of inviting the newer candidates to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. At one of these gatherings, the veterans each had at their feet a jug of urine, which they had been obliged to collect for medical purposes during their stay. One evening, accidentally, Project Mercury candidate Virgil “Gus” Grissom knocked over his jug, but, thanks to the quick-thinking crowd of test pilots, was provided with a ready solution: to order more beer. Several rounds, and a number of trips to the lavatory, later, Grissom’s jug had its required amount of urine. …

The stunning grandeur of a cloud-bedecked Earth, viewed by Scott Carpenter and his hand-held camera. Photo Credit: NASA
The stunning grandeur of a cloud-bedecked Earth, viewed by Scott Carpenter and his hand-held camera. Photo Credit: NASA

Still more tests followed at the Aeromedical Laboratory of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where the pilots withstood cold water pumped into their ears, sat for hours in overheated saunas, endured soundproofed and darkened isolation rooms, blew up balloons until they were out of breath, walked on treadmills until their heart rates soared to 180 beats per minute, and were photographed from every conceivable angle and into every conceivable orifice. Many perceived the whole thing as excessive and a waste of time. “I’d flown combat missions and done operational test flying for 17 years by that point,” wrote Deke Slayton in his autobiography, Deke. “The fact that I’d survived should have told them all they needed to know about stress. At least putting me in the blackout chamber, they let me catch a nap!”

Not only were the selectors looking for the most physically unbreakable men, they were also scrutinising their reactions to the tests and the testers. Would they crack under the unknown stresses imposed by the space environment? Personality questions prompted them to explore their motivations for wanting to become astronauts, their concerns about their health, frustrations, “thoughts,” and even whether their desires to fly jets and rockets arose from feelings of sexual inadequacy. The seven men eventually chosen were all highly intelligent—with IQs of between 131 and 141—but, said psychologist George Ruff, all were “oriented toward action, rather than thought.”

At the Dolley Madison House, opposite Lafayette Park in downtown Washington, D.C.—which served as a temporary headquarters building for NASA at the time—on 9 April 1959, presiding officer Walt Bonney addressed a large crowd of journalists. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “in about 60 seconds, we will give you the announcement you have all been waiting for … the names of the seven volunteers who will become the Mercury astronaut team.” Shortly thereafter, seven suited men took their places on the stage. They included Air Force pilots Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, and Gordon Cooper, Marine Corps aviator John Glenn, and Navy fliers Al Shepard, Wally Schirra, and Scott Carpenter.

Almost instantly, they became household names. They shared little commonality with their Soviet counterparts, who were screened from the world and honored only after their space missions. The Mercury Seven were placed on a pedestal of hero-worship from the start. Their personal stories were sold by lawyer Leo D’Orsey to Life magazine for an estimated $500,000 and a range of “perks”—from Corvettes on one-dollar-a-year leases from General Motors to the best picks in real estate—headed their way.

They were older, more mature, and more flight-experienced than the Soviet cosmonauts, and they held stronger engineering backgrounds. According to Neal Thompson in Light This Candle, his biography of Al Shepard, the Mercury Seven were “steely, technology-savvy test pilots” who had “been around, been tested and stuck it out.” All were 25-40 years old at the time of election, all about six feet (1.8 meters) in height and none heavier than about 175 pounds (80 kg), to ensure that they could fit the tight confines of the Mercury capsule. Engineering, medicine, or physical science degrees were imperative, as were several years of additional professional experience, and at least 1,500 hours in their flight logbooks.

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
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

“The astronaut training program,” NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan told the Dolley Madison audience on 9 April 1959, “will last probably two years. During this time, our urgent goal is to subject these gentlemen to every stress, each unusual environment they will experience in that flight.” The astronauts expected their preparation to include many hours in the cockpits of jet aircraft—“we didn’t know what else to train on,” Gordon Cooper remarked—but their actual training for one of the most audacious feats in human history would encompass much more: physical and psychological conditioning, together with intense, doctoral-level instruction, to enable them to understand the intricacies of the spacecraft and rockets upon which their lives would depend. Spaceflight training had never been attempted and, in many ways, NASA and its seven astronauts were forced to develop the manual as they went along. Indeed, Bob Gilruth, head of the Space Task Group, which included Project Mercury, stressed that they were not merely “hired guns” and that, unlike the military, “where direction comes from the top,” their direct input with respect to spacecraft design was expected and desired.

Eighteen months later, in December 1960, Gilruth offered the Mercury Seven an unusual challenge. He asked them to write the name of the single astronaut—excluding themselves—who they felt was best suited to make America’s first piloted space mission. The media’s darling had always been John Glenn, whose appearance, eloquence, and warmness typified the “all-American” hero … but it was Glenn who actually opted for Scott Carpenter as his personal choice. In his autobiography, John Glenn: A Memoir, Glenn wrote of his affinity to Carpenter. “We shared an open-minded curiosity,” he explained, “that had made us like each other right away.”

That likeability factor eventually drew them together into the prime and backup positions for Mercury-Atlas-6 (MA-6), the mission in February 1962 which saw John Glenn become the first American to orbit Earth. Three months later, on 24 May 1962, Carpenter rode his own MA-7 spacecraft—which he named “Aurora 7″—into space. Over four hours and 56 minutes, he circled the globe three times, conducted numerous scientific and engineering experiments, and endured a particularly harrowing and controversial return to Earth. After MA-7, Carpenter returned to the Navy and served a month-long tour in the Sealab-II underwater habitat, off the coast of La Jolla, Calif., in the summer of 1965. During this time, he spoke via radio with the orbiting Gemini V crew of Gordon Cooper and Charles “Pete” Conrad. He resigned from NASA early in 1967.

The passing of this remarkable man comes only months after the death of shuttle pioneer Gordon Fullerton and a little more than a year since the death of Neil Armstrong. It serves to remind us of the gap of half a century since the “glory days” of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, and it is not difficult to feel a sense of sadness and dismay that the steps taken by Scott Carpenter have not advanced our species further into becoming a true spacefaring civilization. We are no closer to returning to the Moon today than we were at the dawn of Project Apollo and that is, indeed, a cause for lament. Yet the contributions made by Scott Carpenter, both in his astronaut days and in his post-NASA life, cannot be underestimated. Perhaps more importantly than his flight itself, Carpenter served to inspire a new generation of space explorers … and it is that generation which will follow him, dream big as he did, and pursue even loftier goals.


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