Second in U.S. to orbit Earth

M. Scott Carpenter, a college dropout and local ne’er-do-well who became the second American to orbit Earth, wasn’t proud of the way his teen years took off.

“The local papers that say I was just a normal boy are trying to think of something not bad to say,” he told Life magazine in May 1962, a few days before his historic flight in the Aurora 7 space capsule that made him the second American to orbit Earth. “I didn’t study hard and I quit high school football because I couldn’t devote myself to learning the plays. I stole things from stores and I was just drifting through, sort of a no-good.”

After twice flunking out of the University of Colorado and getting into a serious accident driving home from a party, he had an epiphany in his hospital bed. He returned to college and studied hard. Three years later, he was a Navy pilot. A decade afterward, he was one of America’s seven original Project Mercury astronauts.


Briefly feared lost after orbiting Earth three times and plunging into the Atlantic far from his target, he returned to parades and plaudits.

Carpenter, who in 1965 made history again with his experiments in an undersea research capsule, died Thursday morning at a Denver hospice, said his wife, Patty Carpenter, after having a stroke about three weeks ago. He was 88.

Carpenter’s friend and fellow astronaut John Glenn said in an interview that Carpenter’s death made him “sad and glad -- sad of his death, and glad he is not suffering any more. We talked all the time, up to the time he was no longer able to talk.”

Unlike Glenn, Carpenter rocketed into space just once, on May 24, 1962.

After a flawless liftoff, problems arose.

NASA controllers on the ground felt Carpenter practiced too many maneuvers during his orbits, draining the spaceship’s fuel and driving it slightly out of position. Because its nose was pointed too high when retrorockets fired to lower it from orbit, the capsule landed about 250 miles off course. Carpenter was well beyond the range of Cape Canaveral’s radios, and no one knew where he was.

“We may have ... lost an astronaut,” veteran CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite solemnly told a broadcast audience of millions.

Then, after many tense minutes, a Navy pilot spotted Carpenter in a life raft beside the floating space capsule. Moments later, a helicopter deposited him on the deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid.

“We are relieved and very proud of your trip,” President John F. Kennedy told him by telephone.

Carpenter apologized for “not having aimed better.”

Despite some criticisms of his performance within NASA, Carpenter’s flight was hailed as a success.

In a statement Thursday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised Carpenter for completing his mission “despite challenging circumstances.” “We knew then that not only did America have what it took technologically, but our entire astronaut corps would be able to face the challenges ahead that would lead us to the moon and living and working in space,” Bolden said.

Born May 1, 1925, Malcolm Scott Carpenter had a tough childhood in Boulder, Colo. His parents separated when he was 3. After his mother was placed in a tuberculosis sanitarium, he was raised by his grandfather Victor Noxon, a local newspaper publisher. In 1939, Noxon died and Carpenter, all of 14 years old, was more or less on his own.

After graduation from high school in 1943, he joined the Navy’s V-5 flight training program at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. The war ended before he got his wings.

Returning to Boulder, he was on an upward trajectory, winning reinstatement to the Navy in 1949.

Unlike some of his fellow astronauts, Carpenter was never a combat pilot. During the Korean War, he flew on anti-submarine patrols and surveillance sorties over the Formosa Strait, the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea.

At the Navy’s test-pilot school in Patuxent River, Md., he made a name for himself wringing out developmental fighter jets. After further training, and service as an air intelligence officer on the carrier Hornet, he applied for Project Mercury.

“I volunteered for this project for a lot of reasons,” he said after being selected in 1959. “One of them, quite frankly, is that it is a chance for immortality.”

Besides Carpenter and Glenn, the other Mercury astronauts were Alan B. Shepard Jr., Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton. Glenn, a former U.S. senator from Ohio, is the last surviving member of the group.

As their training progressed, the seven Mercury astronauts divided into two camps, Tom Wolfe wrote in “The Right Stuff.” Wolfe said Glenn and Carpenter were the straight-arrow, church-going, family-oriented astronauts, while the others, led by Shepard, favored the looser lifestyles of “fighter jocks.”

On May 5, 1961, Shepard made the first American manned space flight, a suborbital trip that came almost a month after the world’s first manned flight, by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom made America’s second suborbital flight on July 21, 1961.

Glenn made America’s first orbital flight six months later. “Godspeed, John Glenn,” Carpenter famously said as his friend lifted off.

Three months after that, it was Carpenter’s turn. Although the trip ended well, grumblings about his inaccurate landing continued for years.

Flight director Chris Kraft charged that Carpenter’s lack of discipline caused the sloppy landing and unnecessarily generated concern about his fate. Carpenter acknowledged pilot errors, but argued that he overcame “anomalous instrument readings, a tyrannical flight plan, unpleasant cabin temperatures and multiple and contradictory demands from the ground” to complete the mission.

On Aug. 29, 1965, Carpenter became the nation’s first astro-aquanaut, descending 200 feet to the ocean floor off La Jolla to launch an undersea habitation called Sealab II.

He and three other men conducted experiments to determine how well humans can function in a high-pressure undersea capsule for extended periods. They mined ore from the ocean bottom, harvested fish, salvaged and refloated a sunken jet fighter and built an undersea petroleum-exploration platform.

“The sea is a tough adversary, a much more hostile environment than space,” Carpenter said after emerging a month later. “But man has an incredible faculty to adapt in a hostile environment.”

After his retirement from the Navy in 1969, Carpenter founded several small businesses and made occasional appearances on the lecture circuit. In 2003, he published his memoirs, “For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut,” co-written by his daughter, Kristen Elaine Stoever.

He described his life as a “rare personal achievement and self-destruction of equal virtuosity: six cars totaled, four marriages, seven children. From all of them, somehow, boy and man always managed to walk away.”

Carpenter, who had homes in Vail, Colo., and West Palm Beach, Fla., married Rene Louise Price in 1948, Maria Roach in 1972, Barbara Curtin in 1988 and Patricia Kay Snyder in 1998.

In addition to wife Patty and Stoever, he leaves daughters Robyn Jay Carpenter and Candace Noxon Carpenter; sons Marc Scott Carpenter, Matthew Scott Carpenter, Nicholas Andre Carpenter and Zachary Scott Carpenter; one grandchild and five step-children.


Staff writer David Colker contributed to this story. Malnic, a former Times staff writer who died in 2010, prepared much of this story before retiring in 2006.