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Scott Carpenter, 2nd US astronaut in orbit, dies at 88

In this Aug. 1962 file photo, astronaut Scott Carpenter has his space suit adjusted by a technician in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Carpenter, the second American to orbit the Earth and one of the last surviving original Mercury 7 astronauts, died Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. He was 88.

October 10, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Astronaut Scott Carpenter, the second American to orbit the Earth and first person to explore both the heights of space and depths of the ocean, died Thursday after a stroke. He was 88.

Along with John Glenn, who flew three months before him, Carpenter was one of the last two surviving original Mercury 7 astronauts for the fledgling U.S. space program.

His wife, Patty Barrett, said Carpenter died of complications from a September stroke in a Denver hospice. He lived in Vail, Colo.

"We're going to miss him," she said.

At a time when astronauts achieved fame on par with rock stars, folks across the country sat glued to their TV screens, anxiously awaiting the outcome of Carpenter's 1962 ride. He overshot his landing by 288 miles, giving NASA and the nation an hour-long scare that he might not have made it back alive.

The fallout from that missed landing was a factor that kept NASA from launching Carpenter into space again. So he went from astronaut to "aquanaut" and lived at length on the sea floor - the only man to ever formally explore the two frontiers.

The launch into space was nerve-racking for the Navy pilot on the morning of May 24, 1962.

"You're looking out at a totally black sky, seeing an altimeter reading of 90,000 feet and realize you are going straight up. And the thought crossed my mind: What am I doing?" Carpenter said 49 years later in a joint lecture with Glenn at the Smithsonian Institution.

For Carpenter, the momentary fear was worth it, he said in 2011: "The view of Mother Earth and the weightlessness is an addictive combination of senses."

For the veteran Navy officer, flying in space or diving to the ocean floor was more than a calling. In 1959, soon after being chosen one of NASA's pioneering seven astronauts, Carpenter wrote about his hopes, concluding: "This is something I would willingly give my life for."

"Curiosity is a thread that goes through all of my activity," he told a NASA historian in 1999. "Satisfying curiosity ranks No. 2 in my book behind conquering a fear."

Even before Carpenter ventured into space, he made history, again with Glenn. On Feb. 20, 1962, he gave the historic send-off to his predecessor in orbit: "Godspeed, John Glenn." It was a spur of the moment phrase, Carpenter later said.

"In those days, speed was magic because that's all that was required .... and nobody had gone that fast," Carpenter explained. "If you can get that speed, you're home-free, and it just occurred to me at the time that I hope you get your speed. Because once that happens, the flight's a success."

Three months later, Carpenter was launched into space from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and completed three orbits around Earth in his space capsule, the Aurora 7, which he named after the celestial event. It was just a coincidence Carpenter said that he grew up in Boulder, Colo., on the corner of Aurora Avenue and 7th Street.

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.

But 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 told the audience: "We may have ... lost an astronaut."

But 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 with some 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."

One of 110 candidates to be the nation's first astronauts, Carpenter became an instant celebrity in 1958 when he was chosen one of the original seven Mercury astronauts.

"It was the most exciting period of my life," he said.

Carpenter never did go back in space, but his explorations continued. In 1965, he spent 30 days under the ocean off the coast of California as part of the Navy's SeaLab II program.

Once again the motivation was both fear and curiosity.

"I wanted, No. 1, to learn about it (the ocean), but No. 2, I wanted to get rid of what was an unreasoned fear of the deep water," Carpenter told the NASA historian.

Inspired by Jacques Cousteau, Carpenter worked with the Navy to bring some of NASA's training and technology to the sea floor. A broken arm kept him out of the first SeaLab, but he made the second in 1965.

"SeaLab was an apartment but it was very crowded. Ten men lived inside. We worked very hard. We slept very little," he recalled in a 1969 interview. Years later, he said he actually preferred his experience on the ocean floor to his time in space.

"In the overall scheme of things, it's the underdog in terms of funding and public interest," he said. "They're both very important explorations. One is much more glorious than the other. Both have tremendous potential."

After another stint at NASA in the mid-1960s, helping develop the Apollo lunar lander, Carpenter returned to the SeaLab program as director of aquanaut operations for SeaLab III.

He retired from the Navy in 1969, founded his company Sea Sciences Inc., worked closely with Cousteau and dove in most of the world's oceans, including under the ice in the Arctic.

Malcolm Scott Carpenter was born May 1, 1925, in Boulder, Colo. (He hated his first name and didn't use it). He was raised by his maternal grandparents after his mother became ill with tuberculosis.

He attended the University of Colorado for one semester, joined the Navy during World War II, and returned to school but didn't graduate because he flunked out of a class on heat transfer his senior year. The school eventually awarded him a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1962 after he orbited the Earth.

He married four times and had seven children. In addition to his children, he is survived by his wife, Patty Barrett.

He earned numerous awards and honorary degrees. Carpenter said that he joined the Mercury program for many reasons: "One of them, quite frankly, is that it is a chance for immortality. Most men never have a chance for immortality."

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