As we enter a new era in space travel, we are reminded of those who pioneered the initial space race, and just how historically significant their achievements were. Sadly, there is no time more suitable to reflect on the whole of someone’s life than when they have passed on, as former NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter did yesterday, October 10, 2013, at a hospice in Denver, due to complications following a stroke. He lived 88 memorable years.
As one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts chosen in 1959, Carpenter was John Glenn’s backup pilot and became the second person to orbit the Earth, replacing fellow ‘naut Deke Slayton, who was withdrawn due to medical problems. Carpenter headed out into space on May 24, 1962 in the Aurora 7 spacecraft, which orbited the planet three times, making the trip last around five hours. Incidentally, he was the first man to eat solid food in space. I’d put that plaque on my wall.
While this trip was exceptional for obvious reasons, the mission could have ended in disaster when the spacecraft overshot its planned splashdown location by hundreds of miles. While there are still conflicting arguments over why the overshoot happened in the first place, what’s agreed upon is that Carpenter handled the situation with calm expertise, and managed to live on another 50 years. The incident was captured in a 1962 strip of Charles Schultz’ iconic Peanuts.
“We have lost a true pioneer,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. “I shall long remember him not only for his smarts and courage but his incredible humor. He kept us all grounded. We will miss him greatly.”
Born in Boulder, Colorado, Carpenter studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Colorado, and though he missed an exam in his senior year and ended one requirement short of a degree, his orbiting flight was deemed a good enough final exam and he was awarded a degree after the fact.
Glenn is now the only living member of the Mercury 7, as Carpenter joins Slayton, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, and Wally Shirra in death.
Carpenter is survived by wife Patty and six children from different marriages, including filmmaker Nicholas Carpenter (The Turning).
Godspeed, Scott Carpenter, and be sure to tell Neil Armstrong we said hello. You will be missed.
Check out the video below to see his Aurora 7 mission explained in further detail. If you’re interested in a limited fictionalized take on his life, give Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff a read, or watch Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of the same name.