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Carpenter, (Malcolm) Scott

CARPENTER, (Malcolm) Scott

(b. 1 May 1925 in Boulder, Colorado), naval test pilot and electronics expert who was one of the first seven astronauts chosen for the U.S. space program and is best known for his harrowing 1962 flight in the Mercury program, in which he became the second American to orbit Earth.

Carpenter was the son of Marion Scott Carpenter, a chemist, and Florence Kelso (Noxon) Carpenter, a homemaker. His parents divorced when he was three years old; shortly afterward, his mother was hospitalized with tuberculosis, and his grandfather Victor Noxon took over his care. Carpenter remembers being a ne'er-do-well youth who goofed off in school and was a thief and a drifter.

Inspired by a motion picture, he decided to become a pilot. After graduating from high school in 1943, he entered the wartime naval flight training program at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. In 1944 he attended the preflight school at Saint Mary's College of California in Moraga; after six months he went for primary flight training in Ottumwa, Iowa. However, World War II ended before he could complete his training, and the navy discontinued the V-5 program in which Carpenter had enrolled.

By the mid-1940s Carpenter had a deep passion for flying. He began attending the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1945 and earned a B.S. in aeronautical engineering in 1949. During his college years, on 9 September 1948, Carpenter married Rene Louise Price; they eventually had four children and later divorced. In 1949 Carpenter was accepted by the navy and was sent to train in Pensacola, Florida, and then in Corpus Christi, Texas (November 1949 to April 1951). Later in 1951 he studied at the Fleet Airborne Electronics Training School in San Diego, California, and also trained on Whidbey Island, Washington.

As part of the Korean War effort, from 1951 to 1954 Carpenter served in Patrol Squadron Six on antisubmarine patrols and shipping surveillance. In 1954 he was accepted for training at the test pilot school in Patuxent River, Maryland, where he flew several different kinds of aircraft and continually honed his skills by taking additional courses in electronics and intelligence. In 1958 he was assigned to be the air intelligence officer on the aircraft carrier Hornet. He then received orders to report to Washington, D.C., for a secret assignment.

This assignment turned out to be testing to become one of America's first seven astronauts. After undergoing many unpleasant examinations, Carpenter was named on 9 April 1959 as one of the Mercury Seven. His special contributions to the astronaut program were in electronics and navigation. Carpenter's supervisors also were impressed by his intense focus on problems and tasks. Donald K. Slayton was scheduled to be America's fourth person in space, but he was grounded by heart disease, and Carpenter was named to replace him. Carpenter called his Mercury capsule Aurora 7 because "aurora" means "dawn," and he saw his flight as part of a new dawn for the United States.

Carpenter was launched into space on 24 May 1962. Part of his mission was to duplicate John Glenn's earlier orbiting of Earth by orbiting three times. Another part was to discover how well an astronaut could accomplish tasks and research while weightless. Most of the experiments went well, but a large balloon failed to deploy fully. Carpenter was supposed to observe the multicolored balloon trailing behind his craft and to note which colors were easiest to see, to help determine the most visible colors for space docks; he saw enough to settle on orange.

Through a mistake, Carpenter expended too much fuel, perhaps leaving too little for slowing Aurora 7 for reentry into Earth's atmosphere. When he retrofired to slow the craft, the attitude device malfunctioned, putting the nose too high. Then the retro-rockets failed to fire to begin the process of slowing down. After one second had passed, Carpenter pressed a button to manually fire the rockets; two seconds after that, they fired. Also, the balloon had failed to release from the capsule. Further, the capsule was see-sawing, and only by expending fuel could Carpenter partially stabilize Aurora 7. The parachutes for slowing the descent did not deploy properly, and Carpenter had to work intensely to get the main chute to deploy at all. Communications depended on line-of-sight transmission, and the craft went under the line of sight, so its weak transmissions could not be heard. For forty minutes, Carpenter was lost to the world. His craft hit the ocean so hard that it submerged completely, slowly rising back to the surface, with water leaking into it, and far off course. Rather than open the escape hatch and risk sinking the capsule, Carpenter crawled perilously out of an opening in the nose; he then inflated a life raft, wrestled it upright in the water, turned on a homing beacon, and awaited rescue.

Carpenter's efforts and unflappability in the face of near death seemed heroic, but officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) blamed him for the problems with the flight and told him he would never be allowed into space again. In 1963 Carpenter helped to design the lunar module part of the Apollo spacecraft and was the executive assistant to the director of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, Texas.

Carpenter lost his flight status after suffering serious injuries in a motorcycle accident on 16 July 1964. The next summer, on leave from NASA, he became an aquanaut for the navy project SEALAB II, serving as the chief officer of the diving crew and spending thirty days submerged while carrying out experiments on the ocean floor near La Jolla, California. Carpenter earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the navy's Legion of Merit for his work on SEALAB II. He then returned to NASA and was put in charge of providing underwater zero-gravity training for astronauts (for "neutral buoyancy"). On 10 August 1967 he left NASA and became the director of aquanaut operations for SEALAB III, conducting research that led to the development of new deep-sea diving and rescue techniques.

Carpenter retired from the navy on 1 July 1969, and from then into the early twenty-first century was working as an engineering consultant. In 1972 he married Maria Roach; they had two children. Carpenter and Roach divorced, and in 1988 he married Barbara Curtin. They had one child and later divorced. In the 1990s Carpenter published two novels, the Steel Albatross (1990) and Deep Flight (1994), both of which are technological thrillers that draw on his knowledge of deep-sea diving.

Carpenter remains a hero in the public imagination, not only for his 1962 spaceflight but for his public service in deep-sea research after his flying days were over. He helped to determine how much water an astronaut should drink and that it was safe to eat solid foods in space. Additionally, he helped to develop the lunar module that carried astronauts to the surface of the Moon, pioneered underwater rescue techniques that have saved many lives, and helped to open the deep ocean to exploration.

Current Biography Yearbook (1962) offers details about Carpenter's early life. Douglas B. Hawthorne, Men and Women of Space (1992) provides a brief account of Carpenter's accomplishments. Carpenter and his fellow astronauts wrote We Seven, by the Astronauts Themselves (1962). Carpenter wrote two other books in the 1960s about his experiences, Exploring Space and Sea (1967) and Inner Space (1969).

Kirk H. Beetz

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