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[May 24, 1962] Adrift in Two Oceans (The Flight of Aurora 7)


by Gideon Marcus

They say things get tedious in repetition.  Well, I can assure you that at no point during Scott Carpenter’s three-orbit flight, planned to be a duplicate of predecessor John Glenn’s, was I in the least bit bored.  In fact, of the six manned space shots, this was the most moving for me.  Since the launch this morning from the East coast of Florida, a couple of hours after dawn, I’ve been hooked to the television and radio, engaged to a greater degree than ever before.

Perhaps it’s the thoughtful, enigmatic nature of Carpenter, a contrast to the gung ho Glenn, the taciturn Shepard, the consummate test pilot Grissom.  Maybe it’s the fact that Carpenter’s flight had its fair share of drama (but then, so did Glenn’s).  It could well be that, now that Glenn has set the template for space travel, I could spend time contemplating what it all meant.

Certainly, NASA wanted to get the most out of the flight out of Aurora 7.  Its pilot was smothered with tasks, each of them taking longer than scheduled.  First, there were the pictures to take.  Carpenter, cramped into a cockpit barely larger than that of the navy planes he used to fly for a living, fumbled to load film of the special space camera.  Then he had to make haste to spin the little Mercury spacecraft around so as to get good pictures of the horizon and ground features of interest.  By the end of Orbit One, half of the ship’s fuel was gone.

During the second orbit, Carpenter’s suit began to overheat.  Sweat dripping into his eyes, the astronaut deployed a parti-colored beachball.  It was supposed to trail behind the Mercury, providing data on the density of the rarefied atmosphere at that height, as well as the reflectivity of light in orbit.  Well, the thing never quite inflated.  The wilted thing followed along dispiritedly behind Aurora 7 for the next few hours.

This is not to say that Carpenter was having a bad time.  From his first exuberant exclamation upon becoming weightless, it was clear the astronaut was enjoying himself.  He got to eat the first full meal in space…from tubes: one of peaches, and one of beef and vegetables.  And, for a blessed four-and-a-half hours, the heavy space suit weighed nothing at all.  Even overtasked, Carpenter felt free as a bird, even in his tiny, spacecraft-shaped cage.  The dark sky framed three sunrises and three sunsets, punctuated by flurries of the same fireflies that accompanied Glenn in his flight (the astronaut believes they are ice particles shaken from the capsule). 

Fun, to be sure, but at the end of the third orbit, Carpenter was in a pickle.  Almost out of fuel, the ship misaligned thanks to a balky thruster, and the window for firing his retrorockets sliver-thin, the astronaut fired his braking thrusters a few seconds late.  For half an hour, first in the shuddering initial reentry, and then in the chest crushing crashing through the atmosphere, culminating in the gentle sway beneath parachutes before splashdown in the Atlantic, Carpenter had no idea where he would end up.

Neither did the recovery fleet.  In fact, Carpenter landed some 250 miles away from where he was supposed to.  This did not bother the philosophical spaceman, who spent the next hours relaxing on his inflatable raft, sitting in pleasant companionship with a little black fish nearby.  When the boats of the U.S.S. Intrepid finally arrived, hours later, Carpenter was completely calm.  In fact, like a good guest, he offered them some of his food. 

Aside from a little dehydration (he’d lost seven pounds in space!) Carpenter was in tip-top shape.  He has since been whisked off to Grand Turk island for extensive post-flight evaluation, and it is my understanding he got quite the hug from Glenn upon arrival.  There he will stay for a couple of days before he gets to make a tour of his home town of Boulder, Colorado. 

The folks there must be proud of their native son who has ascended far beyond the lofty Rockies.  I know I am.