Scott Carpenter is the fourth American to fly into space and the second American to orbit our planet.
That may not mean much to some in today’s world, when armchair explorers with a cell phone or netbook can scan the lunar surface via GoogleMoon with a few taps of keys.
But some 50 years ago, space travel was still science fiction. Then in 1957, the Soviet Union beat out Americans in putting the first machine satellite in space. The United States felt its power and security in the world diminished by that very fact. Space travel became national security. America had to put a human in space before the Soviets.
On April 9, 1959, the Mercury astronauts were introduced to the world (video here). These seven passed the physical and psychological exams designed by the newly formed NASA. These “Mercury Seven” were to be America’s answer to the Soviets, and America’s answer to the challenge of space.
Scott Carpenter is one of the Mercury Seven, whose exploits are the foundation for all that America and much of humanity have accomplished in human space exploration. I spoke with Commander Carpenter on Wednesday.
From balsa wood model to space capsule
Everyone, even an astronaut, has a beginning.
“My father took me to an airshow when I was five,” Carpenter recalls. “I remember saying to him, ‘how come some of the airplanes were so big and some others were so small?’”
Carpenter was too young to understand the illusion of distance and perspective. There were indeed “tiny” planes high in the sky, and “giant” planes down on the airfield. But the flying machines made their impression for life.
Later, his grandmother gave him a model airplane kit. A Stinson Reliant — highwing monoplane, Aviation Manufacturing Corporation. Wayne, Michigan.
The model was made of balsa wood, and flew! Carpenter promptly lost it in the woods after a few enthusiastic launches. A fever for flight continued to incubate within.
Then came World War II, when the exploits of the great air wars of Europe and Pacific cemented an appreciation for warplanes and aviators in Carpenter. Soon, the teenage Carpenter would see “Wake Island,” a film depicting the fall of besieged American Marines — a real event all too fresh in the public mind. An inspired Carpenter joined up, and was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Navy in 1949. He would begin pilot training at Pensacola, taking his first voyage into the air.
Thirteen years later, he was in space.
Carpenter lifted off on May 24, 1962 and spent about 4 hours, 27 minutes in space aboard his vessel, the Aurora 7. The primary goal of the mission was to see if humans could work in space. Simple tasks like distinguishing colors in space and deploying signal balloons had never been attempted before.
One of the simplest accomplishments he achieved was becoming the first American to eat solid food in space. “It was semi-solid and came out of toothpaste tube.” Carpenter doesn’t remember how it tasted.
“We knew so little those days. We had no idea how metabolism or even swallowing would happen out in space — we didn’t know anything about how the body would work .”
Carpenter’s processed cuisine was also radioactive; NASA researchers marked the food matter with radiation so they could observe how the digestive system dispersed food in low gravity, provided Carpenter returned at all.
More than just irradiated nutrients filled his body, of course. Thoughts and introspections made themselves felt, even if for a fleeing moment in a time-crunched, high-pressure mission with the world awaiting your every move.
Aurora 7 had one tiny window and a periscope glass from which he could peer into the great beyond. You could sense the overwhelming humility of the experience as Carpenter reflected on those four hours aloft.
“From that view … you are a long way away. Everything you see gives you satisfaction of the expection which involves curiosity. The most important driver in everything we did then was curiosity. Can we make machines do this? Can we put our bodies through this?”
“It’s revelatory. Addictive. Beautiful beyond description. To have been in space is very satisfying of one’s curiousity. It’s instructive. It’s marvelous.”
Astronaut and aquanaut
Even heroes have heroes, too.
Carpenter did not go into space again after Aurora 7. Instead of skyward he ventured the opposite way, deep into the oceans as a naval researcher experimenting with underwater human habitation.
In 1965, Carpenter returned to his Navy roots and became the Officer-in-Charge of the SEALAB II Project. He spent 30 days living and working in another capsule, this one 50-feet long and located 205 feet deep on the ocean floor of La Jolla. There, Carpenter’s crew proved that humans could physically and psychologically endure the depths of the ocean, mining ores, growing plants, and even working with a trained courier-dolphin.
His work on Sea Lab earned him the Navy’s Legion of Merit award, but another honor evokes reverence and respect in Carpenter’s memory: working with famed oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
“Jacques Cousteau is one of my great heroes,” says Carpenter.
He worked with Cousteau and the Calypso team on several occasions, and thanks the renowned French explorer for fostering his relationship with the ocean.
“Cousteau once said, ‘a healthy planet is absolutely dependent on a healthy ocean.’
We’re doing alright with ocean exploration and conservation, but we still don’t have the awareness in the [public] masses. Humanity must have the realization of the importance and fragility of the ocean.”
America’s final frontiers
Yet what of space, the frontier Carpenter is most famous for charting America’s course?
The United States has come a long way from claustrophobic one-man capsules. Crews of men and women regularly live in orbit aboard space shuttles and the International Space Station, and robotic probes are exploring Mars, Saturn and beyond. Still, the fantastic dreams visualized in fiction like “2001: A Space Odyssey” have yet to become reality.
“I think it’s headed in the right directions.” Carpenter says while America has not proceeded with our space exploration at the speed that would be better, the delays due to world affairs and and funding are inevitable.
Watching the Mars rover and other NASA missions surfaces many emotions for the veteran pilot.
“Seeing the rover on TV, then seeing the the bright dot of light [of Mars] up there in the night sky. And you realize that what we made is out there! It is astounding.”
And which is his favorite realm, sea or space? The astronaut, of course, replies that the space frontier is much more glorious. “But the ocean will be of greater importance to humanity because it is so close.”
Why we do it at all
Carpenter is 84 and has been at countless press calls, public speeches and media interviews since that April day 50 years ago in Washington, and has suffered a spectrum of questions and fools from the likes of Tom Wolfe and not the least, this rookie reporter.
I ask him why we should explore space at all, and why we should have manned missions when robots and probes can do the work. People just blast it as irresponsible spending in today’s economy, or misguided energy when other problems face the globe.
It will certainly cost us a lot in money and lives, but Carpenter reminds us that space will bring humanity unimaginable benefits.
“We must, as creatures, be able to see around the corner,” the long-time explorer reflected. “We are going out there for new knowledge and new truths.”
Someday, what we learn from exploring Mars and the moon will be crucial to our survival.
But Carpenter warns that no robot can truly explore on humanity’s behalf. “The Mars rovers are marvelous additions, but machines will never replace man in space or the ocean. The creature must be there in that new environment to experience, and learn, and understand.”
The right stuff
And what of the disenchanted youth today? My own generation that is bombarded by the Internet and jaded by the future happening all around them? What words can we live by?
Carpenter’s weathered, pensive voice whispered that word again: curiosity.
“To become aware of a new truth — the greatest satisfaction is to be instrumental in the discovery of new truths.”
Carpenter was instrumental in the truths we uncovered in space and sea. But he says if we can all be inspired to chase after our own curiosity, we will have taken a large leap forward.
“Honor your curiosity — follow it to an answer.”
Photos of Cmdr. Carpenter courtesy of Cmdr. Carpenter/NASA. Sealab photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy. Rho Ophiuchi starscape photo courtesy of AP/NASA. Archival materials from NASA, U.S. Navy, and Cmdr. Carpenter contributed to this article.