DENVER — Scott Carpenter, the second American to orbit the Earth, was guided by two instincts: overcoming fear and quenching his insatiable curiosity. He pioneered his way into the heights of space and the depths of the ocean floor.
“Conquering of fear is one of life’s greatest pleasures and it can be done a lot of different places,” he said.
His wife, Patty Barrett, said Carpenter died Thursday in a Denver hospice of complications from a September stroke. He lived in Vail.
Carpenter followed John Glenn into orbit, and it was Carpenter who gave him the historic sendoff: “Godspeed John Glenn.” The two were the last survivors of the famed original Mercury 7 astronauts from the “Right Stuff” days of the early 1960s. Glenn is the only one left alive.
In his one flight, Carpenter missed his landing by 288 miles, leaving a nation on edge for an hour as it watched live and putting Carpenter on the outs with his NASA bosses. So Carpenter found a new place to explore: the ocean floor.
He was the only person who was both an astronaut and an aquanaut, exploring the old ocean and what President John F. Kennedy called “the new ocean” — space.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Thursday that Carpenter “was in the 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. … We will miss his passion, his talent and his lifelong commitment to exploration.”
The launch into space was nerve-racking for the Navy pilot on the morning of May 24, 1962.
“You’re looking out at a totally black sky, seeing an altimeter reading of 90,000 feet and realize you are going straight up. And the thought crossed my mind: What am I doing?” Carpenter said 49 years later in a joint lecture with Glenn at the Smithsonian Institution.
For Carpenter, the momentary fear was worth it, he said in 2011: “The view of Mother Earth and the weightlessness is an addictive combination of senses.”
For the veteran Navy officer, flying in space or diving to the ocean floor was more than a calling. In 1959, soon after being chosen one of NASA’s pioneering seven astronauts, Carpenter wrote about his hopes, concluding: “This is something I would willingly give my life for.”
“Curiosity is a thread that goes through all of my activity,” he told a NASA historian in 1999. “Satisfying curiosity ranks No. 2 in my book behind conquering a fear.”
Even before Carpenter ventured into space, he made history on Feb. 20, 1962, when he gave his Glenn sendoff. It was a spur of the moment phrase, Carpenter later said.
Three months later, Carpenter was launched into space from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and completed three orbits around Earth in his space capsule, the Aurora 7, which he named after the celestial event. It was just a coincidence, Carpenter said, that he grew up in Boulder, Colo., on the corner of Aurora Avenue and 7th Street.
His trip led to many discoveries about spacecraft navigation and space itself, such as that space offers almost no resistance, which he found out by trailing a balloon. Carpenter said astronauts in the Mercury program found most of their motivation from the space race with the Russians. When he completed his orbit of the Earth, he said he thought: “Hooray, we’re tied with the Soviets,” who had completed two manned orbits at that time.
Things started to go wrong on re-entry. He was low on fuel and a key instrument that tells the pilot which way the capsule is pointing malfunctioned, forcing Carpenter to manually take over control of the landing.
NASA’s Mission Control then announced that he would overshoot his landing zone by more than 200 miles and, worse, they had lost contact with him.
Talking to a suddenly solemn nation, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite said, “We may have … lost an astronaut.”
Carpenter survived the landing that day.