Scott Carpenter, Mercury astronaut, dies at 88

Malcolm Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts who was forced to take manual control of his Aurora 7 capsule after running low on fuel in one of the scarier moments of the early space program, died early Thursday. He was 88.

No cause of death was given, but sources said he had suffered a stroke recently and family members confirmed his passing in emails to NASA and media outlets. With Carpenter's death, only John Glenn, the first American in orbit, remains of NASA's original seven astronauts.

A Navy test pilot and Korean War veteran, Carpenter was chosen for Project Mercury on April 9, 1959, joining six other test pilots -- Alan Shepard, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton -- as America's first class of astronauts.

"His accomplishments truly helped our nation progress in space from the earliest days to the world leadership we enjoy today," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement, praising Carpenter for "his passion, his talent and his lifelong commitment to exploration."

Following two sub-orbital flights by Shepard and Grissom, Glenn became the first American in orbit in February 1962. Carpenter served as Glenn's backup and then rocketed into space himself on May 24, 1962, riding into orbit atop the Mercury-Atlas 7 rocket.

Mercury 7 astronauts: (l-r front) Walter Schirra, Donald Slayton, John Glenn, and Scott Carpenter; (back) Alan Shepard, Virgil Grissom, and Gordon Cooper.
AP Graphics

During three orbits, Carpenter put his Aurora 7 through its paces and reached a maximum altitude of 164 miles, working through a series of science experiments as the flight progressed. He also because the first astronaut to eat solid food in space -- cubes of chocolate, figs and dates mixed in with high-protein cereals, according to collectSpace.com.

"You have to realize my experience with zero-g, although transcending and more fun than I can tell you about, was, in the light of current space flight accomplishments, very brief," Carpenter said in a 1999 NASA interview. "The zero-g sensation and the visual sensation of space flight are transcending experiences, and I wish everybody could have them."

But the flight turned into a nail-biter when, during a pass over Australia, Carpenter "inadvertently neglected to shut off one attitude control system when switching to another, and doubled, for a time, the fuel expenditure," he later wrote in a third-person account.

"The resulting fuel state became critical during reentry. During the rest of the flight he fell further and further behind the flight plan, which he said later was much too ambitious."

Carpenter thought he had the capsule in the proper orientation for re-entry. As it turned out, the nose of the spacecraft was pointed 25 degrees to one side of where it should have been due to a malfunctioning sensor system. This contributed to missing the planned splashdown point by about 175 miles.

Then, the retro-rockets "did not deliver the full thrust that was expected of them," he wrote. "On top of all this, the three retros fired approximately three seconds late. They were designed to fire automatically, but they did not."

Carpenter said he pressed the rocket ignition button at the correct time, but "two seconds passed before they finally went off and at (an orbital) speed of 5 miles per second, the lapse of three seconds accounted for another 15 miles in the overshoot."

Aurora 7 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean about 1,000 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral, 250 miles downrange from the planned touchdown point. After a brief scare, search crews found Carpenter about 40 minutes later, safely bobbing in a life raft by his capsule.

Some critics later said Carpenter was distracted by the experiments he was carrying out and that he did not properly manage the on-board fuel supply when he took over manual control. A post-flight NASA analysis credited the astronaut with successfully handling a potentially dangerous situation.

But Carpenter's perceived devotion to science at the expense of engineering during the initial stages of the Mercury program rankled some within the agency. In any case, he never flew in space again.

He served as an executive assistant to the director of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, working on the Apollo lunar lander and assisting with underwater training for future flight crews.

During this period, Carpenter "became fascinated by the underwater work being done by the French oceanographer J.Y. Cousteau in his Conshelf program," the astronaut wrote, saying he saw "many parallels between that work and the work being done by the American space program."

He took a leave of absence from NASA to participate in the Navy's SeaLab project. But he broke his arm in a motorcycle crash, which prevented him from participating in a planned underwater stay in a habitat 192 feet down.

In 1965, Carpenter took another leave of absence from NASA to participate in the Navy's Man-in-the-Sea Project, serving as a diver, or aquanaut, in the SeaLab II program in the Pacific Ocean near La Jolla, Calif. He spent a month on the ocean floor leading two teams of divers based in a habitat anchored at a depth of 205 feet.

After another brief stint at NASA, Carpenter resumed work with the Navy's Deep Submergence Systems Project in 1967, serving as director of SeaLab III aquanaut operations, focusing on development of deep sea diving techniques for rescue, salvage and research.

"SeaLab III was a very ambitious experiment which would have repeated much of the work done by the previous two SeaLab experiments but at the much greater depth of 600 feet," Carpenter wrote. "After many delays, equipment failures, and other major difficulties, including flooding of the habitat, and finally, the loss of Barry Canon, one of the divers, the troublesome project was canceled."

Carpenter retired from the Navy in 1969 and founded Sea Sciences Inc., a venture capital firm devoted to development of programs "aimed at enhanced utilization of ocean resources and improved health of the planet," according to his NASA biography.

"In pursuit of these and other objectives, he worked closely with the French oceanographer J.Y. Cousteau and members of his Calypso team," the biography says. "He has dived in most of the world's oceans, including the Arctic under ice."

Born in Boulder, Colo., May 1, 1925, Carpenter was the son of a research chemist and attended the University of Colorado from 1945 to 1949, graduating with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering.

He joined the U.S. Navy in 1949 and was designated a naval aviator in 1951. During the Korean conflict, Carpenter flew anti-submarine and ship surveillance missions before training at the Navy Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Md., in 1954. He then served in the Electronics Test Division of the Naval Air Test Center, flying a wide variety of jets and propeller-driven aircraft.

Carpenter was servicing as Air Intelligence Officer aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier when he was selected by NASA to become one of the first seven astronauts.

Carpenter was awarded the Navy's Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, U.S. Navy Astronaut Wings and the Collier Trophy. He held seven honorary degrees.

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."