Scott Carpenter, Mercury Astronaut in ‘Right Stuff,’ Dies at 88

Scott Carpenter, the second American to orbit the Earth and one of the seven Mercury astronauts immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book, “The Right Stuff,” has died. He was 88.

He died yesterday in a Denver hospice, according to the Associated Press, citing his wife, Patty Barrett, who said his death was due to complications from a stroke in September. He lived in Vail, Colorado.

Project Mercury, the first U.S. human spaceflight program, proved the viability of manned missions and laid the groundwork for the Apollo program’s moon landings. Of the seven Mercury astronauts, only John Glenn, who went on to serve as a U.S. senator from Ohio, now survives.

A Navy test pilot when he was tapped for America’s nascent space program, Carpenter orbited his Aurora 7 spacecraft around the Earth three times on May 24, 1962, three months after Glenn became the first American to do so. Carpenter had been the backup for Glenn’s historic mission, which took place almost a year after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth.

Almost five hours in duration, Carpenter’s flight didn’t lack for drama. The temperature in the cabin reached 108 degrees, and a malfunction of the automatic-control system led him to take manual control of the spacecraft before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. He fired the craft’s rockets seconds too late and with the craft at too shallow an angle, and so missed his ocean target by 250 miles (402 kilometers).

Breathing Relief

An hour passed before he was plucked from the ocean and the nation could breathe a sigh of relief.

Receiving a congratulatory call from U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Carpenter told him, “My apologies for not having aimed a little bit better on re-entry.”

He later told reporters that his return “worried a lot of people, including my family and the people in the control center. No one knew where I was -- and I didn’t either.”

Within the hard-partying fraternity of test pilots-turned-astronauts, Carpenter, like Glenn, stood out for his commitment to his family and his aversion to unnecessary risk. Carpenter was Glenn’s “one great ally” in urging the astronauts to be careful about their public image, Wolfe wrote in his 1979 book.

“Scott was about the only one you could sit down with and talk about the broader and more philosophical sides of Project Mercury and space exploration,” Wolfe wrote. “Scott was the only one with a touch of the poet about him, in the sense that the idea of going into space stirred his imagination.”

‘Profound Speculation’

“He would even go out at night and prop a telescope up on top of his car on a tripod and just stargaze and let himself drift into the most profound speculation of astronomy: What is my place in the cosmos?”

Actor Charles Frank played Carpenter in the 1983 movie based on Wolfe’s book. One scene reconstructed how, as 32 astronaut candidates were being culled to the final seven, Carpenter beat Glenn in a lung-capacity contest, blowing air through a tube for 171 seconds. He and Glenn, who quit after 150 seconds, both annihilated the previous record of 91 seconds.

Back in the Navy in 1965 while on leave from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Carpenter spent 30 consecutive days living in the underwater habitat Sealab II, 205 feet below the ocean’s surface off the coast of California. He thus achieved the distinction of being the only astronaut-aquanaut. During his one month underwater, he spoke by telephone to fellow Mercury program member Gordon Cooper, who was orbiting the Earth in Gemini 5.

Apollo Module

In his final NASA years, Carpenter was involved with designing the Apollo lunar landing module.

Malcolm Scott Carpenter was born on May 1, 1925, in Boulder, Colorado, a descendent of the earliest settlers of the state. He was the only child of Marion Scott Carpenter, a research chemist, and his wife, Florence, native Coloradans.

Nicknamed Buddy as a child, Carpenter attended Boulder public schools and developed an early interest in aviation. At 15, he wrote a school paper on why he aspired to be a pilot.

Carpenter attended the Navy’s aviation cadet program and had just begun primary flight training in 1945 when World War II ended and he was demobilized. He returned to Boulder and studied engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder on the G.I. Bill. His education was interrupted by a 1946 car accident that almost took his life.

Test Pilot

At 24, during his senior year, he was again recruited by the Navy. He completed flight training and flew anti-submarine and ship-surveillance missions in the Korean War. He became a Navy test pilot, flying fighters, bombers, transports and seaplanes.

While serving as air intelligence officer on the carrier USS Hornet, Carpenter was summoned to Washington as one of the 110 U.S. military pilots under consideration by newly created NASA. According to Wolfe, Carpenter was surprised when he made the final 32, given his limited flight time.

After a battery of medical, physical-endurance and psychological testing, America’s first astronauts -- the Mercury Seven -- were introduced at a press conference on April 9, 1959.

Carpenter’s NASA training specialized in communication and navigation. As Glenn’s backup, he was manning the console on Feb. 20, 1962, for the pioneering Friendship 7 mission. During the final countdown to blastoff, Carpenter said, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” one of the memorable quotes of the space age.

For the second mission, he replaced fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton, who was diagnosed with an erratic heartbeat.

Carpenter retired from the Navy on July 1, 1969, with the rank of commander, established oceanographic research company Sea Sciences Inc., and worked as a consultant to makers of diving equipment. He wrote two novels and a memoir.

He was divorced three times and had eight children, one of whom died in infancy.

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