By Bob Granath
NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
As the second American to orbit the Earth and one of the "Original 7" Mercury astronauts, Scott Carpenter was one of the icons of NASA's early efforts to explore the new frontier of space.
Carpenter died Oct. 11, at the age of 88 from complications following a recent stroke. He had been living in Vail, Colo.
“The world mourns the passing of Scott Carpenter," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "As one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, he was in the first vanguard of our space program -- the pioneers who set the tone for our nation's pioneering efforts beyond Earth and accomplished so much for our nation."
A frequent visitor to Florida's Space Coast, Carpenter was a charter member of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Recent trips to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida included the February 2012 celebration of the first American orbital space flights.
"It is a special pleasure to go back to where the times were so magical," Carpenter said during activities at Kennedy's Visitor Complex.
Before his own trip into space, Carpenter served as backup for astronaut John Glenn's flight. As the capsule communicator in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Pad 14 blockhouse, Carpenter wished his close friend a safe mission.
"Godspeed, John Glenn," he said seconds before liftoff.
In a statement following Carpenter's passing, the last remaining member of the Mercury 7 responded similarly.
"Godspeed, Scott Carpenter, a great friend," said Glenn. "You are missed."
Carpenter was born in Boulder, Colo., May 1, 1925. He earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Colorado in 1949.
After being commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy, Carpenter was designated a naval aviator in April, 1951. During the Korean War he flew missions in the area of the Yellow Sea, the Formosa Straits and South China Sea. He later attended the Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., and, in 1954, was assigned to the Electronics Test Division of the Naval Air Test Center.
Carpenter was selected as one of the Mercury astronauts in April 1959. Along with his six colleagues, he underwent intensive training for what then was unknown -- whether or not humans could survive in space.
Following two sub-orbital Mercury flights and Glenn's mission to orbit the Earth three times, Carpenter was assigned to Mercury Atlas-7 (MA-7), also slated for three circuits of the globe. Launched May 24, 1962, Carpenter described the initial seconds of being in space five minutes and 24 seconds after liftoff.
"The best cues to the end of powered flight were weightlessness and absolute silence," he said. "(Weightlessness) was very pleasant, a great freedom and I adapted to it quickly."
In addition to continued tests of the Mercury spacecraft, Carpenter conducted a number of scientific experiments during his four hour, 54 minute flight. He studied how liquids behave in weightlessness, conducted observations of the airglow layer of the atmosphere and photographed terrestrial features.
Carpenter gave a vivid description of his observations of the Earth.
"The sunrises and sunsets were the most beautiful and spectacular events of the flight," he said. "Unlike those on Earth, the sunrises and sunsets in orbit were the same. The sharply defined bands of color at the horizon were brilliant."
Another discovery of the flight of Aurora 7 was resolution of the mystery of Glenn's "fireflies." During America's first orbital flight, Glenn reported small participles that they looked like lightning bugs, appearing to be luminous, surrounding his spacecraft
"A number of times during the flight, I observed the particles reported by John Glenn," Carpenter said. "They appeared to be like snowflakes. I believed that they reflected sunlight and were not truly luminous."
As Carpenter reached for an instrument at dawn on the third orbit he inadvertently hit the wall of the capsule and a cloud of particles flew by the window. The "fireflies" turned out to be particles of ice and frost.
While most systems had worked well during the flight of Aurora 7, the pitch horizon scanner malfunctioned at retrofire. Additionally, firing of the capsule’s retrorockets was delayed.
"Although retro sequence came on time, the initiation of retrofire was slightly late," Carpenter said. "After receiving a countdown to retrofire from the California (tracking station) cap com, I waited two seconds and then punched the manual retrofire button. About one second after that, I felt the first retrorocket fire."
Aurora 7 splashed down about 250 miles downrange of the targeted location. A recovery aircraft spotted Carpenter in a raft next to the capsule 30 minutes later. A Navy helicopter soon picked up the astronaut for a trip to the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.
"Overall, I believe the MA-7 flight can be considered another successful step on the road to the development of a useful and reliable manned spacecraft system," Carpenter said after the flight.
Speaking during Kennedy Space Center ceremonies celebrating the 50th anniversary of his and Glenn's orbital flights, Carpenter emphasized that the entire Project Mercury team at NASA centers and contactors around the nation made the program successful.
"It was not a solo effort," Carpenter said. "It took thousands of people to get (us) safely up there and back."
In addition to being one of America's first space explorers, Carpenter also held the distinction of being an aquanaut, having participated in the U.S. Navy's Man-in the-Sea Project. During the summer of 1965, he took a leave of absence from NASA to participate in the SEALAB II program off the coast of La Jolla, Calif.
As part of the 45-day experiment, Carpenter spent 30 days living and working on the ocean floor. During that time, he spoke directly with astronauts Gordon Cooper and Charles Conrad during the eight-day Gemini 5 mission in August 1965.
Carpenter returned to NASA as executive assistant to the director of the Manned Spaceflight Center (now Johnson Space Center) and was active in underwater crew training for spacewalks and the design of the Apollo lunar module.
In 1967, Carpenter returned to the Navy's Deep Submergence Systems Project as director of Aquanaut Operations during the SEALAB III experiment. After retirement from the Navy two years later, Carpenter founded and was chief executive officer of Sea Sciences, Inc., a corporation active in developing programs aimed at enhanced utilization of ocean resources and improved health of Earth. In pursuit of these and other objectives, he worked closely with the French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
Carpenter's awards included the Navy's Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Collier Trophy.