Friday, October 11, 2013

And Then There Was One

The second American to orbit the Earth, Scott Carpenter, died yesterday of complications from a recent stroke. And so it becomes that the oldest Mercury astronaut, John Glenn, is the last one left.

Scott Carpenter took what we might call an unusual road to his 1959 appointment. While he was a graduate of the Navy's Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, he came to it as a pilot of P2V patrol planes, not of high-performance jet fighters. But a test pilot is a test pilot, someone figured, and he was in extraordinarily good physical condition.

It's tempting to say that his unusual path played into the difficulties experienced during the Aurora 7 mission, specifically the late retrofire and the resulting 250-mile overshoot of the landing zone, but that's probably unfair to Carpenter. Scratch "probably", I think it is unfair. Granted, the same kinds of control system problems happened on Gordon Cooper's flight, if not in a more severe form, and Cooper landed closer to the primary recovery ship than anyone else did. But, Carpenter's flight plan was jam-packed with experiments and tests, which may well have distracted his attention from other matters. If you look, you will no doubt notice that the last two missions had a vastly reduced experiment load, possibly for this very reason.

Nevertheless, Chris Kraft reportedly said that Carpenter would never fly for him again. And, he never did. Kraft's opinion might have had something to do with it, but a medically-grounding injury suffered in a 1963 motorcycle accident probably had a lot to do with it as well. Surgeries in 1964 and 1967 were unsuccessful, leading to Carpenter's resignation from NASA in 1967.

Not that he was done with exploration. Carpenter participated in several of the Navy's underwater research programs, spending 28 days underwater on SEALAB II, and serving as a director for SEALAB III.

Fair winds and following seas, Commander Carpenter.