M. Scott Carpenter, 88; Mercury 7 astronaut orbited Earth

M. Scott Carpenter had his space suit adjusted by a technician at Cape Canaveral in 1962.
Associated Press/File
M. Scott Carpenter had his space suit adjusted by a technician at Cape Canaveral in 1962.

NEW YORK — M. Scott Carpenter, whose flight into space in 1962 as the second American to orbit the Earth was marred by technical glitches and ended with the nation waiting anxiously to see if he had survived a landing far from the target site, died Thursday in Denver. He was 88 and one of the last two surviving astronauts of America’s original space program, Project Mercury.

His wife, Patty, announced his death, but no cause was given. He had entered hospice care recently after having a stroke.

His death leaves John Glenn Jr., who flew the first orbital mission on Feb. 20, 1962, as the last survivor of Mercury 7.


When Lieutenant Commander Carpenter splashed down off Puerto Rico in his Aurora 7 capsule on May 24, 1962, after a harrowing mission, he had fulfilled a dream.

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“I volunteered for a number of reasons,” he wrote in “We Seven,” a book of reflections by the original astronauts published in 1962. “One of these, quite frankly, was that I thought this was a chance for immortality. Pioneering in space was something I would willingly give my life for.”

For almost an hour after his capsule hit the Caribbean, there were fears that he had, in fact, perished. He was 250 miles from his intended landing point after making three orbits in a nearly five-hour flight. Although radar and radio signals indicated that his capsule had survived reentry, it was not clear that he was safe.

A Navy search plane finally spotted him in a bright orange life raft. He remained in it for three hours, accompanied by two frogmen dropped to assist him, before he was picked up by a helicopter .

The uncertainty about his fate was only one problem. The equipment controlling the capsule’s attitude (the way it was pointed) had gone awry; moreover, he fired his re-entry rockets three seconds late, and they did not carry the anticipated thrust. He fell behind on his many tasks during the flight’s final moments, and his fuel ran low when he inadvertently left two control systems on at the same time.


Some NASA officials found fault with his performance.

“He was completely ignoring our request to check his instruments,” Christopher Kraft, the flight director, wrote in his memoir “Flight: My Life in Mission Control” (2001). “I swore an oath that Scott Carpenter would never again fly in space. He didn’t.”

Mr. Carpenter was the fourth American astronaut in space. Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Virgil I. Grissom flew the first two Mercury flights, and then Glenn orbited Earth. Mr. Carpenter was the fourth man to go into orbit. Two Russians, besides Glenn, had preceded him.

Malcolm Scott Carpenter was born in Boulder, Colo. His family moved to the New York City area when his father, Marion, got a job there as a research chemist. His mother, Florence, contracted tuberculosis when Scott was a child, and she took him with her when she returned to Boulder to be treated at a sanitarium. The marriage broke up, and Scott was guided by a grandfather, Victor Noxon, who owned a Boulder newspaper. He became enthralled by the prospect of flying.

Mr. Carpenter became a naval aviation cadet in 1943, attending Colorado College, but World War II ended before he could obtain his wings. He entered the University of Colorado afterward but left school without a degree and received a Navy commission in 1949.


He flew patrol planes in the Pacific during the Korean War, then trained as a test pilot, and in April 1959 he was among the seven military pilots chosen as the Mercury astronauts.

Mr. Carpenter was highly accomplished in communications and navigation in addition to his flying skills. He was also in outstanding physical condition, exceeding several NASA performance standards.

He was Glenn’s backup for his epic orbital flight, and became his Capsule Communicator (CapCom), or radio link, famously exclaiming, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” as Glenn’s Friendship 7 achieved liftoff.

His mission called for greater pilot involvement than Glenn’s, and with photographic tasks to perform and science experiments to oversee, he seemed to be having a grand time, although the cabin became uncomfortably warm. But serious trouble arose when the equipment controlling the way the capsule was facing malfunctioned, requiring him to determine the capsule’s proper attitude visually.

“The last 30 minutes of the flight, in retrospect, were a dicey time,” he recalled in his memoir “For Spacious Skies” (2002), written with his daughter Kris Stoever. “At the time, I didn’t see it that way. First, I was trained to avoid any intellectual comprehension of disaster — dwelling on a potential danger, or imagining what might happen. I was also too busy with the tasks at hand.”

Splashing down 250 miles from the nearest recovery ship, he got out of his capsule through a top hatch, then inflated his raft and waited.

Finally, the voice of mission control, Shorty Powers, announced, “An aircraft in the landing area has sighted the capsule and a life raft with a gentleman by the name of Carpenter riding in it.”

President John F. Kennedy greeted Mr. Carpenter and his family at the White House in June 1962 after the Carpenters had been hailed at parades in Denver and Boulder and honored at City Hall in New York. A few days after Mr. Carpenter’s mission, the University of Colorado gave him a long-delayed degree in aeronautical engineering at its commencement, citing his “unique experience with heat transfer during his re-entry.” He had missed out on his degree by not completing a course in heat transfer in 1949.

But the issue of the flight’s brush with disaster lingered. A NASA inquiry determined that, because of a 25-degree error in the capsule’s alignment, the retro rockets had fired at an angle that caused a shallower than normal descent. That accounted for 175 miles of the overshoot, with the remaining 75 miles caused by the late firing of the rockets and their failure to provide the expected thrust.

Kraft, the flight director, was furious at Mr. Carpenter, feeling that he had not paid sufficient attention to instructions.

Mr. Carpenter’s prospect of obtaining another NASA mission was ended by a motorbike injury that led to his leaving NASA in 1967.

In a 2001 letter to The New York Times, he wrote that, “the system failures I encountered during the flight would have resulted in loss of the capsule and total mission failure had a man not been aboard.”

“My postflight debriefings,” he added, “led, in turn, to important changes in capsule design and flight plans.”

Mr. Carpenter also carved a legacy as a pioneer in the ocean’s depths, becoming an aquanaut in the Sealab project.

He retired from the Navy in 1969, pursued oceanographic and environmental activities, and wrote two novels involving underwater adventures.