Scott Carpenter, second American in orbit, dies at 88

AFP-JIJI, AP

Scott Carpenter, who became the second U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth in 1962 as America battled with Moscow in the space race, died Thursday in Colorado at the age of 88, his wife said.

Carpenter had suffered a stroke and was in a Denver hospice when he died.

“He had that worldwide perspective of having seen the entire planet,” his wife said, quoted by the local Vail Daily newspaper.

Carpenter was chosen as one of seven Project Mercury astronauts in 1959 and was the backup pilot for Glenn in preparation for America’s first manned orbital space flight in February 1962, according to his NASA biography.

He was Glenn’s link in mission control, famously exclaiming, “Godspeed, John Glenn!” as the Friendship 7 rocket lifted off.

The two were the last survivors of the famed original Mercury 7 astronauts from the “Right Stuff” days of the early 1960s. Glenn is the only one left alive.

Carpenter flew the second U.S. manned orbital flight on May 24, 1962, piloting the Aurora 7 spacecraft through three trips around the Earth and landing in the Atlantic after nearly five hours of flight time.

The launch into space was nerve-racking for the navy pilot.

“You’re looking out at a totally black sky, seeing an altimeter reading of 90,000 feet (27,400 meters) and realize you are going straight up. And the thought crossed my mind: ‘What am I doing?’ ” Carpenter said 49 years later in a joint lecture with Glenn at the Smithsonian Institution.

America was battling to catch up with its Cold War foe the Soviet Union, which had sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April 1961.

Carpenter’s return to Earth was not without incident. He landed almost 500 km away from his intended splash-down point, and for almost an hour NASA controllers were not sure he had survived re-entry, according to the New York Times.

Carpenter survived, and although he did not go into space again, he continued his explorations, this time going down instead of up. In 1965, he spent 30 days living and working on the ocean floor during the U.S. Navy’s SEALAB II program in the Pacific.

After retiring, he ran a scientific venture capital business focused on ocean resources, working with famed French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, among others. He also worked as a spokesman for various corporations and wrote two novels.

His wife said that he loved his Rocky Mountain home in Colorado.

“After space and under water, the next view for him was looking at the Gore Range,” she said. “We’d stand at the top of Vail Mountain on a powder day thankful that we are lucky enough to live here.”