Saturday, May 23, 2009

Aurora 7 and Scott Carpenter

On May 24, 1962, Scott Carpenter became the second American to orbit the Earth, riding Mercury-Atlas 7, which he dubbed Aurora 7. This capsule and launch vehicle were originally intended to be flown by Deke Slayton. However, he was diagnosed with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation - a heart irregularity which I share - and was barred from flight status. (Had Slayton flown, MA-7 would have been designated Delta 7.)

Carpenter's three-orbit mission was dedicated to scientific experimentation. He concentrated so much of his attention to science and observation that some people (particularly Chris Kraft in Mission Control) felt that he was neglecting flying his spacecraft. A malfunction in the attitude control system caused the spacecraft to expend much more fuel than planned, requiring Carpenter to go into free-drift mode. He had to align the capsule manually for retro fire. Again, some say that Carpenter was overly distracted by Earth observation, which caused him to mis-time retro fire and subsequently land hundreds of miles off target. Others say that the malfunctioning system required Carpenter to intervene manually, which made the retros fire later than the sequencer should have fired them, and also which caused them to fire in a less than ideal sequence.

Aurora 7's flight was considered a technical and scientific success. It paved the way for Wally Schirra to attempt a six-orbit flight in the next Mercury mission. However, Kraft was so furious about the missed landing and other glitches that Carpenter was essentially blacklisted from flying again. Carpenter permanently injured his arm in a motorcycle accident several years later, which made him unqualified to fly as an astronaut.

Carpenter, who was a Navy pilot before joining NASA, returned to the sea as an "aquanaut" in the Navy's Sealab program. He made a 28-day extended underwater mission in 1965 in Sealab II. There is a hilarious recording available of a call from President Johnson to Carpenter in Sealab. Unbeknownst to Johnson, Carpenter was in a decompression chamber, breathing an atmosphere in which nitrogen was replaced with helium, to prevent the bends. Carpenter's voice therefore sounds as high-pitched as would be the case for anyone inhaling helium from a balloon. In this recording, you can vividly picture the look of bewilderment that must have been on Johnson's face as he read his prepared remarks to Carpenter.

Pictured at left is a photo I took of Carpenter in February 2009 at Spacefest, talking to Jim McDivitt.

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