I liked Scott Carpenter—deeply admired him—even if Chris Kraft didn’t. Kraft was the Mercury program Flight Director and a titanic figure in NASA‘s early history. He was also running the show in Houston on May 24, 1962, when Carpenter—who died in hospice care today at age 88 after having suffered a stroke—became the fourth American in space and the second to orbit the Earth, replicating John Glenn‘s three-orbit trip of just two months before.
The flight was easily the best of the four NASA had flown so far—the most complex and certainly the most purposeful, with the astronaut actually conducting a few quick scientific experiments during the four and a half hours he was aloft instead of just proving that the spacecraft could fly and the human body could take the trip, without the heart rate going awry, or the balance system coming unsprung, or the eyeballs exploding in zero-g. Exploding eyeballs were a real fear back then. But Carpenter’s mission went perfectly—until all at once it didn’t.
An instrument known as a pitch scanner—which kept the nose of the spacecraft from dipping too low or rising too high during flight via the simple expedient of staying focused on the horizon—was malfunctioning. This caused the ship to drift subtly, the thrusters to fire to correct the problem and precious fuel to be lost. The retrorockets were glitchy too, failing to ignite automatically at the correct moment—a problem, but a correctable one, since the astronauts were trained to take over and light the motors manually. Carpenter did just that—needing only a single second to react—but the rockets took two more seconds to ignite. When you’re traveling at five miles per second, that makes an awfully big difference in where you land. And during descent, the guidance system lost its way again, requiring Carpenter to take over and steer it manually with his now fuel-poor thrusters. The result was that he landed 250 miles (400 km) off course and was feared dead for 40 minutes before rescue crews could find him. That scare, not to mention the flight itself, made him a hero. But not to Kraft.
“He was a dumbass,” Kraft told me in a 1992 conversation when I brought up Carpenter’s name. I asked him to explain what he meant. “I mean stupid,” Kraft responded. “Not smart.”
Carpenter was nothing of the kind, of course, but such was the performance knife-edge on which all of the astronauts, particularly the fabled Original Seven, flew. NASA’s own investigation of the splashdown overshoot exonerated Carpenter of any pilot error, even lauding him for handling things as well as he did in the face of multiple failures. But Kraft always suspected that Carpenter had gotten distracted by his in-flight experiments and gone a little moony over being in space in the first place and simply missed the retrofire call. It was a suspicion he could not be persuaded out of and he “swore an oath,” as he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, “that Scott Carpenter would never fly in space again. He didn’t.”
That was our loss. Carpenter had been tapped as an astronaut in 1959, along with John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Al Shepard, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper, and like all of those other men, he had come of age as a military aviator. He flew Navy fighter reconnaissance and anti-submarine missions during the Korean War and later prowled the skies off the coasts of China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And, like so many other early astronauts, he wound up at Patuxent River Naval Station in Maryland, test piloting military vehicles. When NASA came looking for astronauts, they went to Pax River and what is now known as Edwards Air Force Base in California first, the thinking being that if a man was willing to climb into the cockpit of an experimental aircraft that was not only able to kill him, but flat-out wanted to kill him—and would indeed kill some of the men he went flying with during the day and drinking with at night before any given year was out—he wouldn’t sweat too much lying on his back inside a tiny nine-ft. (2.7 m) pod at the top of a 94 ft. (29 m) Atlas booster, which carried a sloshing, explodable load of 28,000 gal. (106,000 L) of liquid oxygen and 16,000 gal. (61,000 L) of refined petroleum fuel.
And Carpenter did climb into the pod and he didn’t crack a sweat and he flew a deeply cool mission when it was a deeply scary thing to do. And even if everything Kraft (who is a deserved legend himself, albeit a cranky one) said about Carpenter was true, well so what? In some ways, Carpenter was ahead of his time. Astronauts then couldn’t afford to get dreamy, couldn’t afford to go all rhapsodic. They couldn’t afford to sing a David Bowie song to a ga-ga Earthly audience aboard the football field sized International Space Station like Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recently did. The Mercury pilots were all about the business, all about managing the machine. The late Jack Swigert, who flew aboard Apollo 13, once commented that the very thing that would qualify poets to travel into space and then write about the experience with a transcendent loveliness and lyricism would disqualify them from going in the first place. You can either go into the void or you can appreciate the exquisite improbability of it. You can’t do both.
But Carpenter—far before it was fashionable or possible—did. He wrote once about the sweet serenity he experienced during the 40 minutes he floated alone after splashdown, looking at the Caribbean Sea beneath him and the ocean of space above him, and contemplating both the discordance and the symmetry of the two places. He was nibbling on a sea-ration biscuit at the time, and when the first frogman reached his raft, he offered him a bite. He was at home on that raft, on that sea, and like any good host, he offered a little something for a guest to eat. May he find the same peace on the infinitely larger ocean he set sail on today.