CU astronaut-alumnus Scott Carpenter looks back at 50th anniversary of Aurora 7 mission
On May 24, 1962, University of Colorado Boulder alumnus Scott Carpenter lifted off from Earth in NASA’s Aurora 7 space capsule mounted atop a Mercury-Atlas rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., swiftly climbing to roughly 165 miles in altitude.
The NASA astronaut and his capsule were swept into Earth’s orbit, eventually speeding around the planet at 17,000 miles per hour — a velocity roughly equal to flying from New York to Nepal and back in under 60 minutes. Carpenter, who attended CU-Boulder from 1945 through 1949 in the aeronautical engineering department, made three orbits of Earth in roughly five hours before splashing down in the Atlantic.
Carpenter was the fourth American astronaut to fly in space, following Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn, and the second to achieve orbit around Earth behind Glenn. As one of the “Original Mercury 7” astronauts, Carpenter made an indelible mark on history with the flight of the Aurora 7 mission. He and his colleagues were celebrated in the Tom Wolfe book, “The Right Stuff,” which told the story of early military test pilots as well as the original Mercury astronauts.
A half-century later, Carpenter looked back at his time in space. “That seems like a long time ago,” said Carpenter, now 87 and living in Vail. “I still remember what a thrill it was being up there — I liked the feeling of weightlessness, and the view I had of the Earth.”
Carpenter will participate in two days of events May 23 and May 24 in New York City in honor of the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Aurora 7 flight. The events, sponsored by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation created by the Mercury 7 astronauts “will be a great honor for me,” said Carpenter. In February, Glenn and Carpenter — the only two living Mercury astronauts — attended a ceremony at Kennedy Space Center in Florida celebrating the 50th anniversary of the nation’s first two orbital flights.
“Scott Carpenter is the epitome of all of the good things about the University of Colorado Boulder’s leading role in probing the frontiers of space,” said CU-Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano. “The 50th anniversary of his mission is a tribute to NASA’s original Mercury 7 crew and to all of the NASA astronauts, including many associated with CU-Boulder, who have stood on their shoulders.”
One of his most vivid memories during the Aurora 7 mission, Carpenter said, was his successful role as a sleuth. During Glenn’s February 1962 orbiting mission, he reported seeing brightly lit particles swirling about outside the space capsule, which he dubbed “fireflies.” The mysterious particles baffled not only Glenn, but also NASA engineers and scientists.
Carpenter observed the same type of fireflies outside the space capsule during the Aurora 7 flight. During the mission, he accidently banged on the capsule cabin wall, causing a swarm of the fireflies to appear through the window. Carpenter almost immediately identified them as tiny ice particles dislodged from the capsule’s exterior shell, subsequently dubbing them harmless “frostflies.” “I was particularly pleased that I was able to demystify John Glenn’s ‘fireflies,’ ” he said.
Born in Boulder on May 1, 1925, Carpenter grew up in a house at Seventh Street and Aurora Avenue, and graduated from Boulder High School in 1943. He then entered the Navy’s V5 flight training program at CU-Boulder. He spent the next year training in California and Iowa, returning to Boulder in 1945 to study aeronautical engineering at CU for the next four years.
Carpenter was commissioned in the U.S. Navy in 1949 and flew a variety of missions during the Korean War. He attended Navy Test Pilot School in Maryland in 1954 and was assigned as an Air Intelligence Officer on the USS Hornet aircraft carrier. In April of 1959 he was selected by NASA to be an astronaut.
After serving as backup pilot for Glenn for America’s first manned orbital space flight on Feb. 20, 1962, Carpenter got his own chance just three months later. At the end of the successful mission his space capsule landed in the Atlantic Ocean about 135 miles northeast of Puerto Rico. Soon after, he took congratulatory calls from President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
Although he was one course requirement short of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering when he left CU in 1949, the university awarded him his degree in 1962 following the successful Aurora 7 flight. When presenting the degree to Carpenter, CU President Quigg Newton said “his subsequent training as an astronaut has more than made up for his deficiency in the subject of heat transfer.”
In 1965 Carpenter took a leave of absence from NASA to participate in the Navy’s Man-in-the-Sea Project as an “aquanaut” in the SEALAB II project off the coast of La Jolla, Calif., where he spent 30 days living and working on the ocean floor at a depth of more than 200 feet. While undersea he spoke by phone with astronauts Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad as they sailed overhead during their eight-day Gemini 5 mission.
Because of his groundbreaking deep-sea diving experiences with the Navy, Carpenter is hailed by many to be the first person to conquer both outer and inner space.
In 1967 he became the Navy’s director of aquanaut operations during the SEALAB III experiment. After retiring from the Navy in 1969, he founded and became CEO of Sea Sciences Inc., a venture capital corporation that developed programs aimed at enhanced use of ocean resources and improved health of the planet. He worked closely with noted diver and scientist Jacques Cousteau and members of his Calypso team, and subsequently dove in most of the world’s oceans, including under Arctic ice.
Buoyed by his background in aerospace and ocean engineering, he also developed a career as a consultant to industry and the private sector, has lectured around the world, narrated television documentaries and written several books, including the 2002 New York Times best-seller, “For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut” co-authored with his daughter, Kris Stoever. Carpenter continues to travel, lecture and consult.
Carpenter’s name and fame is synonymous with several Boulder landmarks, including Scott Carpenter Park and Pool and the Aurora 7 Elementary School.
“I’m very proud of my attendance at the University of Colorado,” said Carpenter, the first of 19 CU astronaut-affiliates to fly in space. “And there was not a better home for me than Boulder.”