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The Last of the First

Forty years later, astronaut Scott Carpenter looks back at his Mercury experience

3 min read

For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut, Scott Carpenter & Kris Stoever; Harcourt 2002, 358 pp. US $26, ISBN 0-1510-0467-6 This biography and semi-memoir is by the last Mercury astronaut to weigh in with a personal account. The six other members of that cadre selected in 1959 have already written their books and had their say, but Carpenter, although no recluse, waited 40 years to do so.

Much of the book naturally deals with his own experiences. His account of the Mercury astronaut selection process, based both on his first-hand experience and on subsequent interviews, is the best ever published. But his daughter Kris did the actual writing, which involved a great deal of follow-on research about events that involved Carpenter and has the pleasant result of providing a much wider context than the typical first-person account.

All the same, this approach introduces an awkwardness. It is not clear throughout the book which viewpoint is being used: Carpenter's highly personal one or a third-person hindsight rendering of his actions.

That aside, For Spacious Skies strives to respond to persistent rumors and accusations about Carpenter's performance on his Mercury mission in May 1962. He is charged with having been unprofessional, most recently by former flight director Chris Kraft in his 1999 book Flight [see "Fights and Flights," IEEE Spectrum, June 2001, pp. 80-82]. His spacecraft landed 400 km off target and for a brief period there were fears that it had burned up. Kraft devoted an entire chapter of his book to vilifying him.

Carpenter's account is consistent with other versions of the mission and the men involved. At stake was the issue of "Who's Boss?"—Kraft or the astronauts? Before Carpenter's flight, Kraft had been publicly dressed down by John Glenn, Carpenter's fellow Mercury astronaut, for not disclosing a problem with the heat shield. Carpenter had stepped in at the eleventh hour for a medically grounded pilot, Deke Slayton, who was a favorite of Kraft's team. The research workload for the mission had been vastly increased. During the flight, too, an orientation sensor broke in the worst possible way—intermittently, and with no backup except eyeballing the horizon.

While the historian must give the final verdict on Carpenter's mission, these pages supply additional information of the sort that good on-the-scene reportage provides. This version is helpful in understanding both what happened, and how people later reacted. But it still concentrates only on the facts. I couldn't find any descriptions of Carpenter's personal impressions of the flight. What was he thinking, or feeling? We aren't told much.

Admittedly, there are details about how Carpenter felt out of step with the other astronauts, despite possessing superb flying skills and an impressive record as a test pilot. He tired of pilot talk at cocktail parties, and liked scientists. He used training sessions to try things out, rather than ensure high scores by not risking new techniques. Life magazine saw him as "a different kind of hero—more Holden Caulfield than John Glenn."

Even before a motorcycle accident had restricted the movement of a wrist so severely that he was medically grounded, Carpenter describes how he had decided to switch to the U.S. Navy's underwater habitat development program, Sealab. The events of that program are well chronicled, but again we don't learn how he felt about living under water for so long. Nor do we learn much at all about what he did for the next 30 years of his life.

All of the above is in the second part of what is essentially two books in one. In the first half, Stoever describes her father's childhood in Colorado, living with grandparents after his mother fell ill and his father deserted them. These fine, loving portraits of a functioning extended family that didn't fit the 1950s' nuclear family stereotype fully justify the book's subtitle, an "uncommon journey." With everyone who has had to overcome such challenges while growing up, this narrative will strike a chord of familiarity.

The book's two halves differ in the level of the intimacy of the personal relationships they cover. Once Carpenter's adult life begins, his feelings become veiled. Whether it be the death of a child, or the decay of a marriage, or the thrill of a space journey, the descriptions fall back on action narratives, and not inner journeys and thoughts. Carpenter is willing to share the facts, but his inner self remains sealed off. There are occasional quotations from a private diary he kept, as well as extensive use of his wife's journals and of letters passed between him, his mother, and his absent father, but these only leave the impression that we are seeing more deeply into their souls than into Carpenter's.

Carpenter's mission brought back valuable data about outer space and about how to safely fly there. Along with him in this highly readable book, we learn much about his exterior world. It was clearly a deliberate choice that his inner world remain private, and he has that right.

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