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Rene Carpenter, astronaut’s wife who broke NASA mold, 92

Ms. Carpenter joined husband Scott Carpenter in viewing his space capsule at a ceremony after his May 1962 space flight.
Ms. Carpenter joined husband Scott Carpenter in viewing his space capsule at a ceremony after his May 1962 space flight.Associated Press/File 1962/via AP

NEW YORK — Rene Carpenter, the last surviving member of the much-glorified cohort of Mercury 7 astronauts and their wives, whom Tom Wolfe immortalized in his bestselling 1979 book “The Right Stuff,” died on Friday in Denver. She was 92.

Her daughter Kris Stoever said the cause was congestive heart failure.

Ms. Carpenter, who retained that surname even after she was divorced and remarried, was the wife of Scott Carpenter, one of the seven original Project Mercury astronauts, who carried the hopes of an anxious nation on their shoulders in the early days of space travel.

Thanks to NASA’s public relations machinery and coverage in publications such as Life magazine, these 14 men and women were lionized at a time when the United States was seeking to catch the Soviet Union in the space race. Ms. Carpenter was the last living member of the group. Annie Glenn, the wife of astronaut John Glenn, died in May of the coronavirus at 100.

Perhaps more than any of the seven wives, Ms. Carpenter broke the NASA mold and emerged with her own identity. On photo shoots, when the women were told to wear solid pastel dresses, Ms. Carpenter, a striking platinum blonde, showed up in a sleeveless red floral pattern. People magazine called her “the undisputed prom queen of the early space program.”

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It was actually Ms. Carpenter who signed her husband up for Project Mercury. He had made it through the initial phases of qualification when a letter arrived while he was out of town. Ms. Carpenter opened it. The letter said that if he wanted to proceed to the next phase and enter the physical trials, he needed to respond immediately. Without checking with him first, she called the number and declared, “We volunteer!”

She immersed herself in NASA history and acquired a firm grasp of the science as well as the personalities involved.

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“She was keenly alert to everything going on in the space program, from its orbital mechanics to its rivalries,” the novelist Thomas Mallon, a longtime friend, said by e-mail.

Mallon said that Wolfe got much of his best material for “The Right Stuff,” which was made into a movie in 1983, from Ms. Carpenter.“Jackie Kennedy was so taken with her that they spent part of an afternoon together at the White House reciting Edna St. Vincent Millay poems,” Mallon added.

Project Mercury consisted of six different launches. When Scott Carpenter lifted off from Cape Canaveral in his Aurora 7 capsule on May 24, 1962, to become the fourth American in space and the second to orbit the Earth, his wife and their children were in Florida watching the event in person from the beach.

“Rene said, ‘I’m going, I don’t care what NASA says,’ ” Stoever, her daughter, said in an interview. “Other families watched the launches from their homes, with children planted in front of the TV. But Rene wasn’t with the program.”

Ms. Carpenter wrote her own account for Life of the tense moments during that flight when her husband had lost contact with mission control. She did not sugarcoat the life of a Navy wife.

“As a bride I was assured by glowing advertisements that I would spend my hours fingering the latest sterling silverware pattern and filling linen closets to overflowing,” she wrote. The reality, she said, was that “I learned to give birth alone, care for sick babies alone and wait at the end of a hundred almost forgotten runways for a plane to touch down again.”

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She and the other astronaut wives, she wrote, “present gallant faces to the world, and inside we are as tough as the heat shield that arcs behind our husbands’ backs.”

Behind the scenes, she made fun of how the wives were all supposed to be “proud, thrilled, happy” after a successful launch. She invented a character she called Primly Stable, the wife of the astronaut Squarely Stable, who often said she was “proud, thrilled, happy.” Even as she mocked the phrase, Ms. Carpenter said she genuinely felt all those things.

Ms. Carpenter was a passionate Democrat. Raised during the Depression, when she handed out flyers for Franklin D. Roosevelt, she jumped at the chance to campaign for John Glenn when he first ran for the Senate from Ohio in 1964. When he was incapacitated by a fall, and his wife, Annie, was sidelined by a near-paralyzing stutter, Ms. Carpenter took to the hustings and delivered John Glenn’s speeches. She wowed the national media, but Glenn was forced to withdraw because of his injuries.

Four years later, she campaigned alongside Robert F. Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, during his bid for president. She was soon writing a syndicated column, “A Woman, Still,” and NBC-TV hired her to help cover the Apollo launches.

A smart, sociable, and entertaining woman, she became a familiar Washington personality in the 1970s and ’80s, traveling in a social circle that included Ben Bradlee, Art Buchwald, Katharine Graham, and David Brinkley.

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In the 1970s, after she and Scott Carpenter divorced, she had a television program of her own, “Everywoman,” which was pioneering in its feminist perspective and its frank treatment of previously off-limits subjects such as birth control, natural childbirth, and sexism.

Rene Louise Mason was born on April 12, 1928, in Clinton, Iowa. Her parents named her Rene after a friend of her mother’s named Irene. Her mother, Olive Loraine (Olson) Mason, was one of the first women clerks at Clinton’s railroad station. Clinton, a small river town, was hit hard by the Depression, and her father, Melville Francis Mason, was out of work and soon out of the picture, divorcing his wife in 1930.

Olive Mason later married Lyle Price, a brick mason, and he adopted Rene, who became Rene Louise Price. The family moved to Boulder, Colo., in 1941, where Price began a successful construction business.

Rene graduated from Boulder High School in 1946, and attended the University of Colorado, where she majored in history. She worked as an usher at the Boulder Theater, where she met Scott Carpenter; they married in 1948. While he was in the Navy’s aviation officer training program, she bore five children, one of whom, Timothy Kit Carpenter, died in infancy.

Ms. Carpenter and Scott Carpenter divorced in 1971, and she married Lester H. Shor, a developer. He died in 2017. Scott Carpenter died in 2013.

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In addition to her daughter Stoever, Ms. Carpenter leaves a son, Robyn Jay Carpenter; another daughter, Candace Noxon Carpenter; a sister, Peggy Cronin; a brother, Walter Price; a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter. Her son Marc Scott Carpenter died in 2011.