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Original Mercury 7 Astronaut, Alumnus Scott Carpenter Shares Insights with Past, Future Space Travelers

Article By: Barbara Honegger

Astronaut M. Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven astronauts for Mercury Project, stands at the control center in 1959. Boosted by the Mercury-Atlas vehicle, shown inset, the MA-7 mission made the second manned orbital flight ever by the United States, and carried Astronaut Carpenter aboard the Aurora 7 spacecraft to orbit the Earth three times. (Photo courtesy of NASA)Naval Postgraduate School alumnus retired Navy Cmdr. M. Scott Carpenter – the second American to orbit the Earth and the world’s first astronaut/aquanaut – celebrated the 47th anniversary of his Aurora 7 space flight and answered questions from aspiring students and fellow former astronauts now on the NPS faculty in a special telephone interview at the School, May 29.

Carpenter, now 83, is one of more than 30 astronaut graduates who have been invited to an Astronaut Symposium this August as part of the Naval Postgraduate School’s 100th year Centennial celebration. The NASA pioneer, who plans to attend, was one of the original “Mercury Seven” astronauts, the back-up pilot for John Glenn’s first U.S. manned orbital flight in 1962, and piloted his own Earth-circling spacecraft in May of that year.

Carpenter recalled NASA’s paradigm shift-- when the space agency changed from training test pilots to do science experiments to training scientists to become astronauts -- with President Daniel Oliver, former astronaut faculty members National Reconnaissance Office Chair Dan Bursch and Space Systems Prof. Jim Newman, Space Systems Academic Group Chairman Prof. Rudy Panholzer, and Space Systems students Air Force Capt. Christina Hicks and Lt. Matthew Crook.

The original Mercury Seven were announced on April 9, 1959, only six months after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formally established on October 1, 1958. Front row, left to right, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. 'Gus' Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper. (Photo courtesy of NASA)“All of the early space program flights were experimental flight tests focused on learning about the spacecraft,” he said. “After our Mercury and the Gemini programs, NASA became more focused on the environment of outer space itself and the new science to be done rather than on the vehicles – on what was there versus what got us there. And the best way to get trained scientists in orbit was to take trained scientists and put them in orbit, versus taking trained test pilots and training them in science. That was a fundamental shift.”

Like the other “Mercury Seven,” Carpenter ran numerous scientific experiments on board a single-man space capsule as stepping stones to the later lunar missions. His Aurora 7 experiments included attempted observations of high-candle-power flares on earth and deploying a tethered balloon to measure drag resistance of the highly thinned atmosphere and identify the colors most visible in space.

Bursch and Newman, whose NASA missions were mainly on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, pointed out other major differences between their experiences and Carpenter’s.

“You had to do everything yourself, in a single-seat spacecraft, versus our having a lot of people to do things for us, and we had the advantage of long flights, versus your having only three orbits,” Bursch said.

Newman noted that the first free-flying NPS satellite, designed and built by over 50 thesis students, called PANSAT, was released into orbit from the celebrated return flight into space of Senator John Glenn, for whose historic original earth-orbiting mission Carpenter had been the backup pilot.

Hicks, who graduates in September and is doing her master’s thesis on NPS’ modular mini-satellite CubeSat, asked Carpenter what advice he had for officer students like herself who want to become astronauts.

“The most important preparation is to stay in school as long as you can and work as hard as you can,” he said. “Follow your own mind and train yourself in the science that turns you on, as space flight serves all scientific disciplines. Design an instrument or experiment that takes advantage of the hard vacuum and zero gravity, name yourself as principal investigator and propose it to NASA -- and you’re a ‘shoo-in,’” Carpenter quipped.

As for NASA’s current vision of establishing a lunar base as a platform for Mars missions, the pioneer astronaut said the jury’s out.

“We don’t yet know for sure that a lunar landing is a prerequisite to a successful Mars flight,” he said. “Maybe – but it may be more advantageous to go directly [from Earth] to Mars.”

In addition to the heights of space, which President Kennedy called “The Other Ocean,” Carpenter also explored the depths of the water planet we call home. On leave from NASA, he spent a month living and working on the deep sea floor as an Aquanaut in the Navy’s SEALAB II Program, Man-in-the-Sea Project in 1965, for which he received the Legion of Merit Award.

“SEALAB work was mule-hard – bitter cold and dark, long and arduous – not brief and glorious like space flight, and the divers put their lives on the line, just like astronauts,” Carpenter recalled. “But it was an extremely rewarding experience and I was proud and happy to be part of that group because they were so unheralded. For me it represented a lost opportunity for a lunar flight and had ample rewards for what it replaced.”

Upon returning to NASA, Carpenter served as Executive Assistant to the Director of the Manned Spaceflight Center and was a major participant in designing the Apollo Lunar Landing Module and training crews for underwater extravehicular activities.

Carpenter shared memories of his time at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he graduated from the Naval General Line School in 1959. “Academia is a great place to be, which is what made my time at the Line School among the most pleasant memories I have of the Naval service and one that I will always treasure,” he recalled. “It’s wonderful that NPS has such a strong space program, for both engineers and operational students, and that the magic of space flight has caught on here.”

“You’re a hero to all of us,” Oliver said in closing, “and we look forward to your coming back to these hallowed grounds for the Astronaut Symposium in August.”Veteran astronauts, now NPS faculty, retired Capt. Dan Bursch, second from left, and Jim Newman, right, talk by speaker phone with fellow former astronaut M. Scott Carpenter, the second American ever to orbit the Earth, in a special interview, May 29. Listening intently are NPS President Daniel Oliver, left, and Chairman of the Space Systems Academic Group Professor Rudy Panholzer, second from right. (U.S. Navy photo by Javier Chagoya)

“It was inspiring and an honor to speak with someone who really paved the way for me to become an astronaut,” Bursch said afterwards. “We’re all looking forward to meeting him when he’s here in just a few months.”

Carpenter’s memoirs, “For Spacious Skies,” co-authored with his daughter Kristen Stoever, was published in 2003. He and the other surviving “Mercury Seven” astronauts still get together through the Mercury 7 Foundation, which funds scholarships in space education.

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