Scott Carpenter was part of an elite group of pioneering astronauts whose grit and courage made manned space exploration possible

Legendary astronaut Scott Carpenter, who passed away in the U.S. last week (October 10) following a stroke, belonged to an era when astronauts regularly risked their lives testing new technologies in conditions alien to humans. On May 24, 1962, Carpenter became the second American after John Glenn to orbit Earth in his Aurora 7 space capsule. Carpenter, along with Glenn, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper comprised the original Project Mercury — a group of astronauts whose determination and courage pointed the way to the stars for the hundreds of astronauts who would follow them.

Early days

The 1960s were heady days of the space race and stories of the Mercury astronauts’ heroics, heartbreaks, and humour were legion. The astronauts unwound from their rugged training sessions at Cocoa Beach, Florida — a mosquito coast of shrimp boats, ribbon roads, noisy bars, and motels. The stress of living on the edge was enormous and they lightened their 70-hour weeks by turning pranksters, playing practical jokes on each other. Schirra once substituted a jug of lemonade, stale beer and detergent for his urine sample. Gus Grissom sent an entire delegation of visiting congressmen, Air Force generals and corporate presidents diving for cover when he shouted over a megaphone that Russian missiles had been spotted heading their way. And Glenn enthralled the entire planet on his first orbit when he reached into his camera bag to capture a brilliant sunset over the Arabian Desert — only to bring out a toy mouse with a longish tail.

NASA had a tough time picking candidates for missions from the seven equally capable potential space pilots. Thus Alan Shepard beat Glenn to become the first American in space, while Glenn was chosen ahead of Carpenter and Grissom for the first U.S. orbital flight. But there were no hard feelings; the fun and camaraderie of this fine band of astronauts helped NASA overcome all challenges. In fact, Carpenter drove down from his training site miles away to watch Glenn launch. His famous “Godspeed” to Glenn as he stood by with Annie Glenn has become a standard see-off phrase at NASA launches.

Scott Carpenter’s orbital hop in the Aurora-7 was expressly meant to find out if humans could survive the rigours of zero-g or weightlessness. It led to some important discoveries about spacecraft navigation. For instance, during his four-and-a-half hour flight, Carpenter trailed a balloon to confirm that space offers no resistance. But disaster struck the picture-perfect mission during re-entry: a series of system malfunctions forced the capsule to overshoot the landing area and splash down in the Atlantic, some 250 miles off target. For 40 agonising minutes, Carpenter was given up for lost before a navy chopper spotted him floating in the Caribbean Sea in his life raft, feet propped up and munching sea-ration biscuits. Ever the gracious host, he offered biscuits to the surprised frogmen who reached him. Known to be cool under pressure, after altitude indicators failed, Carpenter simply “looked out the window” of his capsule, oriented himself and splashed down safely. He later said he was just contemplating the mysteries of the heavens above and the ocean below in his raft!

Unique feat

Carpenter created history again three years later when he descended to the ocean floor in the Jacques Cousteau-inspired Sealab II to determine if humans could live undersea for extended periods. This made him the first person to explore both the heights of space and the ocean depths. Now, with Carpenter gone, only John Glenn is left of those intrepid outriders of manned space exploration who pointed the world towards new frontiers and high adventure.

(Prakash Chandra is a science writer.)

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