1962: Scott Carpenter’s Spaceflight

Carpenter

History hardly remembers anyone who is the second to do anything important. Such is the case of NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter, who was only the second American to orbit the earth on May 24, 1962.

Carpenter followed John Glenn’s historic Friendship 7 flight, but few people recall how Carpenter got his assignment, what happened when he was in space, nor even what he named his Mercury capsule (Aurora 7). NASA meant to put Donald “Deke” Slayton into orbit after Glenn, but Slayton’s heart murmur diagnosis kept him earthbound, and the space agency pressed backup Carpenter into action.

Carpenter’s flight started smoothly enough. Then, his spacecraft used too much fuel and suffered a guidance failure during re-entry. It sent Aurora 7 more than 200 miles past the Atlantic Ocean recovery zone. While the Navy picked up other astronauts within minutes after splashdown, it took searchers three hours to find Carpenter, during which commentators questioned if he’d actually survived the trip.

Ironically, the second NASA orbital mission developed an unusual curse. Two years after Slayton’s grounding, Carpenter himself was found medically unfit for further spaceflight after injuring his arm in a motorbike accident. Undaunted, Carpenter took his pioneering spirit beneath the sea. He spent 28 days living in the Navy’s Sealab II on the ocean floor near California in 1965.

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