40th anniversary of the mercury 7

Photo Gallery
Related Links

M. Scott Carpenter
by Tara Gray

Photo of Scott CarpenterMalcolm Scott Carpenter, Commander (USN, Ret.), was born on May 1, 1925, in Boulder, Colorado, to parents Dr. Marion Carpenter and Florence Kelso (Noxon) Carpenter. His parents separated when he was 3 years old and when his mother was hospitalized with tuberculosis, he was raised by a family friend. He attended primary and secondary school in Boulder, graduating from high school in 1943. After graduating from high school, Carpenter entered the Navy's V-5 flight training program at the University of Colorado. The program was designed to give potential pilots advanced academic training at the same time they received basic experience in aircraft.1 After a year there, he spent six months in training at St. Mary's Pre-flight School, Moraga, California, and four months in primary flight training at Ottumwa, Iowa. When the V-5 program ended at the close of World war II, Carpenter entered the University of Colorado to major in aeronautical engineering. He received a degree there in 1949.2

Following his graduation, Carpenter joined the Navy and received flight training from November 1949 to April 1951 at Pensacola, Florida and Corpus Christi, Texas. He spent three months in the Fleet Airborne Electronics Training School, San Diego, California, and was in a Lockheed P2V transitional training unit at Whidbey Island, Washington, until October 1951.3

In November 1951, he was assigned to Patrol Squadron 6 based at Barbers Point, Hawaii. During the Korean conflict, he was with Patrol Squadron 6 engaged in anti-submarine patrol, shipping surveillance and aerial mining activities in the Yellow Sea, South China Sea and the Formosa Straits.4 In 1954 he entered the Navy Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland. After completion of his training, he was assigned to the Electronics Test Division of the NATC. In this assignment Carpenter conducted flight test projects with the A3D, F11F and F9F and assisted in other flight test programs.5 He flew tests in a variety of Naval aircraft including multi- and single-engine jet aircraft and propeller-driven fighters, attack planes, patrol bombers and seaplanes.6 He then attended Naval General Line School at Monterey, California, for ten months in 1957 and the Naval Air Intelligence School, Washington, DC for an additional eight months in 1957 and 1958. In August 1958 he was assigned to the USS Hornet, anti-submarine aircraft carrier, as Air Intelligence Officer, where he was serving when he received cryptic orders to report to Washington in connection with an unspecified special project.7 Stopping in an airport on the way back from Washington, he picked up a Time magazine and learned that the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had identified 110 candidates, all military pilots, from which to take volunteers for America's first manned venture into space.

A few weeks later he became one of the "Original Seven" Mercury astronauts, chosen on April 9 1959, and was assigned to the Manned Spacecraft Center (then Space Task Group) at Langley Field, Virginia.8 Upon reporting for duty, he was assigned a specialty area in training involving communications and navigational aids, because of his extensive prior experience in that field in the Navy. He served as John Glenn's backup pilot during pre-flight preparations for America's first manned orbital flight, MA-6.9

When NASA grounded MA-7 pilot Donald K. Slayton (Deke) due to his heart condition, idiopathic atrial fibrillation (erratic heart rate), Carpenter was selected as prime pilot for that mission with Walter M. Schirra, Jr., as his backup pilot.10

On May 24, 1962, Carpenter lifted off onboard the spacecraft he dubbed Aurora 7 sitting atop the Mercury-Atlas 7 rocket. His Aurora 7 spacecraft attained a maximum altitude (apogee) of 164 miles and an orbital velocity of 17, 532 miles per hour.11 His primary goal during the three-orbit mission was to determine whether an astronaut could work in space, a major stepping stone towards a lunar landing. The flight plan included numerous scientific experiments, including observations of flares fired on Earth and the deployment of a tethered balloon. The balloon deployment was an important experiment, to measure the drag of the balloon in the very thin atmosphere and observe its behavior, its distance from the capsule and the various colors it was painted. But the balloon did not inflate properly—it got only 10 inches wide instead of 30—and it took longer than was expected for it to reach the end of its 100-foot nylon tether. Carpenter was, however, able to judge its colors—the orange being the most visible, which was a clue NASA used for painting objects necessary for orbital rendezvous procedures. It was impossible for Carpenter to measure drag and the balloon proved to be extremely difficult to jettison once the experiment was concluded. The switch that was meant to release the balloon did not operate and Aurora 7 continued to trail the balloon until retro-fire.12 Needless to say, the mission was less than a total success. Carpenter seemed distracted and behind schedule most of the flight.13 He expended too much attitude-control fuel when he inadvertently neglected to shut off the straight manual system when he switched over to the fly-by-wire system in which the pilot could control the capsule himself using fuel from the automatic system tanks rather than the manual system tanks. As a result he was draining fuel out of both systems every time he used the stick.14

At the time of retro-fire, Carpenter believed that he had brought the capsule to the proper attitude. He found out later that this was not correct. The small bottle-top end of the capsule was canted 25 degrees to the right of where it should have been, an error in yaw. He was unable to line the capsule up on all three axes as precisely as he should have. This meant that the capsule was not pointed in an absolute straight line long its path when the rockets fired, and so it did not slow down as much as it should have. This accounted for 175 miles of the 250-mile overshoot. But, several other things went wrong in addition to that. First, the retrorockets did not deliver the full thrust that was expect of them. This loss of thrust accounted for 60 miles of the overshoot. And then, on top of all this, the three retros fired approximately three seconds late. They were designed to fire automatically, but they did not. Carpenter watched the clock pass the correct instant, and then hit the retro-button himself a second later. Two seconds passed before they finally went off. At the speed of 5 miles per second, this lapse of three seconds accounted for another 15 miles in the overshoot. In between the time when the retrorockets were fired and the moment the Aurora 7 began its reentry through the atmosphere, things were "pretty tight," as Carpenter puts it. The fuel supply was critically low, and it was unclear as to whether or not there would be enough fuel to keep the capsule in the proper trim for the long glide back to Earth. If it came through at the wrong angle and the fuel was exhausted, Carpenter would have been unable to control the capsule during descent and the chances of surviving such a reentry were not good. He learned that though the manual tank still registered 7 percent, it was really empty, and only 15 percent of the fuel supply remained in the automatic tank for the whole reentry. He was dangerously short.15

Carpenter maneuvered the capsule very gingerly, keeping the horizon in view through the window, and trying to use as little fuel as possible. He held the position steady and when he felt the first oscillations that told him the capsule was encountering the heavy atmosphere, he started the capsule rolling at a rate of 10 degrees per second. This was to help keep it on its proper course on the way down and to equalize the heating of the spacecraft from the intense heat it would encounter during the reentry process.16

Despite worries it was a beautiful reentry. The ride most of the way down was smooth and Carpenter and his Aurora 7 spacecraft were headed in at a good angle. When he glanced out the window, Carpenter noticed an orange ring of fiery particles stretching out like a wake behind the capsule. These were tiny pieces of the ablative heatshield which had melted off and were carrying some of the intense heat away with them. The peak Gs last longer than they were expected to on the way down and as Carpenter spoke, he had to inhale more frequently. The oscillations were beginning to build up and he could feel them swinging the capsule from side to side. These, however, were welcome because they meant that an aerodynamic pressure would be exerted against the capsule and help keep it on an even keel on the way down. The G forces tapered off at 120,000 feet, and the capsule and Carpenter were falling approximately 600 miles per hour. The oscillations built up rapidly and carpenter used the very last of his fuel trying to control it, he was concerned that the capsule might topple over completely and start coming down topside first. If this were to happen the drogue parachute would get badly fouled up if it popped out during the wild swinging or possibly snap the capsule around so violently that the chute would be badly damaged during deployment.17

Finally, as the oscillations became worse and the capsule began to sway through a huge arc of about 270 degrees—almost a full circle—Carpenter pressed the button to deploy the drogue chute. This was at 26,000 feet. The flight plan originally called for the chute to be deployed automatically at 21,000 feet, however Carpenter felt it needed it sooner to help damp the oscillations. The six-foot drogue came out in good shape, and the descent stabilized. The altimeter swung towards 10,000 feet, the point at which the main chute was supposed to come out automatically. When it did not, Carpenter allowed 500 feet more and then pulled the ring. It deployed perfectly, an orange and white canopy, perfectly shaped, stressed to its limit and drawn tight as sheet metal as it strained to support the capsule's weight.18

Carpenter had no way of knowing that he had overshot his landing target area by 250 miles. He had experienced the normal communications black-out during reentry as the ionization barrier built up around the capsule, and neither the Cape nor Carpenter could hear each other. Once Aurora 7 past that phase of reentry, Carpenter picked up a transmission from Gus Grissom, second American in space and capsule communicator (CAPCOM) at the Cape Canaveral Control Center. He advised Carpenter that he had overshot his target area and that he should expect to wait approximately an hour on the water for recovery. Grissom also informed him that a plane carrying paramedics was on its way to the landing area to give him assistance. The tracking devices had computed Carpenter's landing point as he descended, so the Control Center knew fairly well where he was, but it was clear that he had overshot by so far that he was out of range of the communications network.19

Most of NASA's communications between the capsule and the ground were made on a line-of-sight basis. As long as the capsule was at orbital altitude, the radio transmissions carried easily to the next tracking station. However, the lower the capsule became, the shorter the range of communications became until when Carpenter reached parachute level at 2,000 feet, there was no one close enough to hear him. He did pick up signals from the stronger ground transmitters, which is how he heard Grissom's transmissions, but his were too weak for anyone to read. He made several calls as he parachuted down, but when no answer was received he knew that no one could read his transmissions.20

Upon landing after 4 hours 53 minutes and 47 seconds of flight,21 the capsule became completely submerged and emerged listing sharply—about 60 degrees—to one side. He saw a small amount of water in the cockpit; the tape recorder at his feet had several splashes on it. With an hour to wait for recovery, Carpenter decided to get out and wait in the raft. He removed his helmet, removed the right half of the instrument panel to make an exit and then squeezed his way up past the instrument panel. It was not an easy exit but he found it better than sitting in the listing capsule for an hour or blowing the side hatch and losing the spacecraft altogether. He opened the hatch on the small end of the craft, put the camera he had been using during the mission in a safe place near the opening and dropped the life raft into the water. He got onto it before he realized that it was upside down. He climbed out into the water, turned the raft over and got back in. Then he tied the raft to the capsule so they wouldn't drift apart and turned on the SARAH (Search And Rescue And Homing) beacon which would assist the recovery plane home in on his position.22

Approximately 45 minutes after his splashdown, 1000 miles southeast of the Cape,23 recovery planes from the USS Intrepid began approaching. He signaled them with a small hand mirror and they began to circle his position. Not long after that, there were planes all around his landing area. Two paramedics jumped into the ocean and proceeded to attach a collar to the capsule to keep it afloat and checked on the astronaut. Carpenter offered them food and water from his survival kit, grateful for their presence.24 It was another two hours before a helicopter from the USS Intrepid could pick up the astronaut. Almost an hour and a half later, the second American astronaut to orbit the earth stepped out onto the deck of the Intrepid to be taken back to Grand Turk Island for debriefing.25 Following his space flight and subsequent debriefing, Carpenter returned to Patrick Air Force Base at Cocoa Beach, Florida, and was faced with a round of honor-receiving ceremonies.26

It is believed that because of his performance, Carpenter was told that he would never fly another NASA mission.27 In 1963, he monitored the design and development of the lunar module for the Apollo project. He also served temporarily as Executive Assistant to the Director of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston. In the spring of 1965, on leave from NASA, he participated as an aquanaut in the U.S. Navy's SEALAB II project. In this capacity, he acted as Training Officer for the crew and was Officer-in-Charge of the submerged diving teams during the operation.28 He spent 30 days living and working in SEALAB II 205 feet below the surface on the ocean floor off the coast of La Jolla, California. At one point he spoke by phone to the crew of Gemini 5, original Mercury astronaut L. Gordon Cooper and "New Nine" astronaut Charles L. "Pete" Conrad, orbiting overhead. Carpenter led two of three teams of Navy men and civilians during the 45-day experiment.29 For his participation in the experiment, he was awarded the Navy's Legion of Merit award.30

NASA public relations credited Carpenter with being the first person to explore both of humanity's great remaining frontiers, the ocean and President Kennedy's "New Ocean": space. After the SEALAB II experiment, Carpenter returned to the space program and was responsible for liaison with the Navy for underwater zero-gravity training (neutral buoyancy).31 On July 16, 1964, in Hamilton, Bermuda, Carpenter lost control of the motorcycle he was driving and broke his lower left arm. The compound fracture eliminated Carpenter from participation in a Navy test in which he would have been submerged in a diving chamber with four Navy divers at a depth of 192 feet.32 This accident also removed him from flight status and he resigned from NASA on August 10, 1967.33

He was then assigned to the Navy's Deep Submergence Systems Project as assistant for aquanaut operations during the SEALAB III experiment. The project was responsible for developing deep-ocean search, rescue, salvage and ocean engineering capabilities, and directed the Navy's Saturation Diving Program.34

Carpenter retired from the Navy on July 1, 1969. Since then he has been an engineering consultant, a wasp breeder, and a novelist. His first novel, entitled The Steel Albatross, is a techno-thriller in the same vein as Tom Clancy, about a Soviet plot to place a doomsday device on the ocean floor. He still makes his home in Colorado, his boyhood home, and is still friends with the remaining Mercury astronauts. They occasionally get together for skiing trips or meetings in connection with their Florida-based Mercury 7 Foundation for scholarships in space education.35

Carpenter is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 160 pounds. He has brown hair and green eyes. He was married to the former Rene Louise Price of Clinton, Iowa, on September 9, 1948; they were later divorced. He married the former Maria Roach, daughter of film producer Hal Roach, in 1972, and married the former Barbara Curtin in 1988. They have since divorced. He has four children from his first marriage: Marc Scott, born November 29, 1949; Kristen Elaine, born June 26, 1955; Candace Noxon, born October 8, 1956; and Robyn Jay, born March 4, 1962. He also has two children from his second marriage: Matthew Scott and Nicholas Andre, and one child from his third marriage: Zachary Scott. 36

Carpenter is an honorary fellow in the Institute of Environmental Sciences, a member of the Association of Space Explorers–USA, and a member of Delta Tau Delta. He has been awarded the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, Navy Astronaut Wings, University of Colorado Recognition Medal, National Aeronautic Association's Collier Trophy, New York City Gold Medal of Honor, Elisha Kent Kane Medal, Boy Scouts of America Silver Buffalo, and Numismatica Italiana Award.


Carpenter | Cooper | Glenn | Grissom | Schirra | Shepard | Slayton


1. Hawthorne, Douglas B. Men and Women of Space (San Diego, California: Univelt Incorporated, 1992), pp. 119–120.
2. "Malcolm Scott Carpenter." National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Washington, DC, May 1961). Hereafter referred to as NASA Biography.
3. Ibid.
4. "M. Scott Carpenter." Manned Spacecraft Center Biographical Data. Houston, Texas, April 1967, p. 1. Hereafter referred to as MSC Biography.
5. NASA Biography.
6. Hawthorne, p. 120.
7. Ibid.
8. MSC Biography, p. 2.
9. Ibid.
10. "Carpenter Replaces Slayton as MA-7 Pilot." NASA Press Release. Washington, DC, March 15, 1962.
11. MSC Biography, p. 2.
12. Carpenter, M. Scott, et al. We Seven (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 359.
13. Hawthorne, p. 121.
14. Carpenter, et al., pp. 362–363.
15. Ibid., pp. 363–364.
16. Ibid., p. 364.
17. Ibid., pp. 364–365.
18. Ibid., p. 365.
19. Ibid., pp. 365–366.
20. Ibid., p. 366.
21. MSC Biography, p. 2.
22. Carpenter, et al., pp. 366–367.
23. MSC Biography, p. 2.
24. Carpenter, et al., p. 368.
25. "Three More Orbits Added to Record." Space News Roundup 30 (May 1962): 1, 3.
26. "Astronaut M. Scott Carpenter, Aurora 7, May 24, 1962." National Aeronautics and Space Administration Manned Spacecraft Center. Houston, Texas, p. 1.
27. Hawthorne, p. 121.
28. MSC Biography, p. 2.
29. Hawthorne, p. 121.
30. MSC Biography, p. 2.
31. Hawthorne, p. 121.
32. "Motor Bike Spill Fractures Arm of Astronaut." The Baltimore Sun, July 17, 1964.
33. Ibid.
34. Ibid.
35. Ibid.
36. Hawthorne, p. 120 and e-mail from Barbara Carpenter, July 16, 2001.

Carpenter | Cooper | Glenn | Grissom | Schirra | Shepard | Slayton