Fifty Years Ago: A Cross-Country Trip, Some Bedrolls, and a Nebraska Night Sky

    By Scott Carpenter and Kris Stoever

    Ready for launch - Astronaut Scott Carpenter peers into his Mercury-Atlas 7 spacecraft on his launch date, May 24, 1962.. . .To this day, the airplane remains a superb standoff weapon, although it too is vulnerable to countermeasures and its standoff distance is exceeded by that of ballistic missiles.

    So the story of invention brings us to the cold war, missiles, rockets, unsuspecting Navy lieutenants, and space. For on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched into orbit a small, pinging radio satellite called Sputnik I. Speculative comparisons about technological superiority were over. Soviet rockets could do what American rockets could not. The United States was behind, once again, in a serious technology race.

    In October 1957, Scott and his two sons, Scotty, eight years old, and five-year-old Jay, were driving east across the county in the yellow-and-green 1953 Mercury Sun Valley. The tour of duty in Monterey, Calif., at the Navy Line School, had ended; Scott had orders to the Air Intelligence School in Washington, D.C., for eight months of classroom instruction … after which he could expect a three-year assignment to sea duty. Although photo interpretation would be an interesting part of his studies, Scott’s main assignment would be briefing and debriefing the pilots on their missions. No flying of his own.

    Rene had flown with the girls to Boulder, where they would stay while the boys and their father enjoyed a cross-country trip with their bedrolls. The plan was to meet up in Boulder, after which the Carpenter men would press on for Virginia and house-hunting duties. They camped out every night by the car (waking up one morning dusted with snow) and saw a lot of night sky. In Nebraska, however, was something altogether new. They had heard news of the Soviet satellite on the radio, so Scott knew what it was. “There’s Sputnik!” Scott said to the boys, pointing to the satellite. They were unimpressed. To them it was simply a white light on what appeared to be a low, fast-flying airplane. But when their father explained what they were really seeing, where it had come from, how far away it was, how high it was, and how fast it was moving, they perked up. Scotty asked why the light didn’t flash like other airplanes. His father told him that the satellite possessed no light of its own but was so high it could still see the sun, so the three of them were looking at reflected sunlight. There was a long silence while they contemplated a brand-new world.

    Excerpted from For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut, p. 144–145