On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union opened the space age by orbiting Sputnik, history’s first artificial satellite. Four months later, the United States launched its own first satellite and began hiring astronauts in the hopes of beating the Soviets to a manned space flight. President Eisenhower wanted his astronauts to be test pilots, and 500 applied. Sixty-nine of them were invited to Washington for interviews, IQ and aptitude tests, and a notoriously thorough set of medical exams. In the end, seven extremely smart and able men were chosen as America’s “Mercury astronauts.” The Russians beat them into space—by a little less than a month—but the Mercury Seven laid the groundwork for the grand prize in 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
During the space race, all seven Mercury astronauts were national celebrities. Their fame waned over the years; these days, only two are well known: John Glenn, the first American in orbit (later a senator from Ohio), and Alan Shepard, the first American in space (and the only man to hit golf balls on the moon).
Even among the mostly unknown remaining five, Scott Carpenter is obscure. He was the fourth in space, the second to orbit, and, as of October 10, the second-to-last to die.
Malcolm Scott Carpenter was born on May 1, 1925. He joined the Navy in 1943, as a freshman in college; the war ended before he finished training, so he was released back to school. He rejoined in 1949, qualified as an aviator, and flew antisub patrols during Korea. In 1954, he became a test pilot, and in 1958, he received secret orders to report to Washington, D.C. When he showed up, the newly formed NASA suggested he volunteer to become an astronaut—and, of course, he did.
On May 24, 1962, Carpenter’s Mercury spacecraft—which he’d named Aurora 7—zoomed into space atop an Atlas rocket. The flight should be known for establishing that astronauts could work without gravity; Carpenter performed several experiments to test orbital dynamics—and himself. Unfortunately, the legacy of the Aurora 7 mission is a series of mistakes and miscalculations that started when Carpenter forgot to shut off an attitude control and ended with Aurora overshooting its mid-ocean landing site by 250 miles.
It’s true that Carpenter should have noticed the attitude mistake, but in his defense, no one in mission control noticed it, either. He made his mistake, moreover, just after the environment system in the capsule broke and the temperature spiked to a toasty 160 degrees.
It took the recovery crew 45 minutes to find him; when they did, he was lying happily in his life raft, contemplating his trip through space. Carpenter thought the rescue team looked hungry, and—as an officer and a gentleman—offered everyone a snack from his survival kit.
It’s a grave injustice that, as an astronaut, Carpenter is mainly remembered for the landing overshoot. He never got a chance to make a second flight. Soon after Aurora, he broke his arm in a motorcycle crash and never regained full use of it. The injury grounded him permanently.
Instead of resigning in well-earned bitterness, he stayed at NASA to help train new astronauts. For a time, he was loaned back to the Navy to work on the deep-sea habitat SEALAB, and spent 30 days living and working underwater as an “aquanaut.” Afterwards, he returned to NASA and helped design the neutral-buoyancy underwater training that prepared his replacements for the gravity of the moon and the absence of gravity on the way there.
In 1969, Neil Armstrong took the first step on the moon, and Scott Carpenter retired. On his return to private life, Carpenter founded an ocean exploration company, wrote a couple novels, and had eight children. One of his last public actions was to join other ex-astronauts and NASA execs in signing an open letter to President Obama, in response to the cancellation of President Bush’s return-to-deep-space Constellation program. The letter urged the president to “drop this misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.” “Too many men and women have worked too hard and sacrificed too much to achieve America’s preeminence in space only to see that effort needlessly thrown away,” it concluded. “This is not the time to abandon the promise of the space frontier for a lack of will or an unwillingness to pay the price.”
That letter is three years old. President Obama hasn’t yet taken its advice. If he does, it will be good news for the country—and a fitting legacy for a fine and underappreciated man.
Scott Carpenter was 88. He is survived by his wife, six children, six grandchildren, and John Glenn.
Joshua Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.