Rob Joyner remembers an American hero.
Aurora 7 lifts off from Cape Canaveral on a three orbit mission around Earth. Four hours, 56 minutes and 5 seconds later, Scott Carpenter, age 37, becomes the second American to orbit Earth, fourth American in space, fourth person to orbit Earth, and the sixth person in space. Due to an injury from a 1964 motorcycle accident that left his left arm with limited range, this would be Carpenter’s only spaceflight.
But that didn’t stop him from exploring. In 1965 Carpenter, an experienced diver, spent a month in 205 feet of ocean in the Navy’s SEALAB II habitat off the San Diego coast. He then returned to NASA to help with designs for the Apollo Lunar Module. After retiring from NASA in 1967 Carpenter became director of aquanaut operations for SEALAB III. Two years later, after leaving the Navy, he created his company Sea Sciences Inc. and worked closely with Jacques Cousteau.
Before his only spaceflight, Carpenter was backup for John Glenn’s 1962 orbital flight. It was then that he spoke the historic words, “Godspeed, John Glenn.” Just over 36 1/2 years later, Carpenter was there at Kennedy Space Center to send off the crew of STS-95 Discovery, which included a 77 year old John Glenn: “This point in the count it seems appropriate to say to the shuttle Discovery crew, ‘Good luck. Have a safe flight, and to say once again, Godspeed, John Glenn.”
I first met Scott Carpenter in late 2001 at Kennedy Space Center during the induction of the first shuttle astronauts into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. This was the first time that I had ever met any astronauts. I would eventually meet over 100 within the next ten years. The very first astronaut I met that night was Carpenter’s fellow Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra, one of the most animated persons you could ever meet. I had brought along a small paperback book of space missions in which to get autographs. I met astronauts who flew aboard NASA mission programs from Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, SkyLab and Apollo-Soyuz. I walked away a very happy camper that night.
I met Scott Carpenter on several occasions during my many visits to Kennedy Space Center, and a few times at events at other venues. One very special time was when I was at KSC for another Hall of Fame induction weekend in 2003. Besides Carpenter, other astronauts in attendance were Jim Lovell and Fred Haise of Apollo 13, and Moonwalkers Ed Mitchell and John Young. Mercury astronauts John Glenn and Gordon Cooper were also there. Meeting any astronaut is always exciting, but meeting one of the original 7 is really something. And I met three of the surviving four there that night, all in the same room. Wally Schirra did not attend that year. As we were being slowly ushered out of the room I asked Carpenter if he’d mind if I could get a photo with him and Gordon Cooper. At that time Glenn had already left the room. Carpenter was happy to, so I quickly asked Cooper the same. “Sure,” he said in his slow southern drawl. So there I was, standing between two of the first seven American astronauts. Click. I’ve had my photo taken with a lot of astronauts, but this one is my absolute favorite.
Carpenter is probably the astronaut I have met the most. I met him at least enough to where he actually remembered me. On May 1, 2004 Carpenter was signing autographs at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and while standing in line I overheard someone a few people ahead of me say that they thought it might be Carpenter’s birthday. This person said nothing about it when they met him at his table. When I finally approached the table I said hello and shook his hand. While Carpenter was busy signing the photo I had brought I asked quietly if it’s possible that today was his birthday. I’ll never forget that moment. I could see the wide grin forming even before he raised his head. Through a big beautiful smile he said, “Yes. It is. I’m 79!” Everyone in line heard him and I’m sure that he got well wishes from the rest of them. I wished him a very happy birthday and asked if I could get my photo taken with him, to which he obliged. He asked me if I was from England. I told him I was from southeast Georgia, less than 4 hours north of KSC. He then asked me about myself and we talked about my trips to the space center. I again wished him a happy birthday and thanked him for taking the time to be there on his special day.
It must have been about a year to a year and a half later when I met Carpenter at the space center again. When I showed him the photo of us taken previously I asked if he remembered it. And he did – “That was on my birthday!” He couldn’t remember which birthday, but he said he remembered talking to me then and that he remembered my accent. Now, over my years I’ve been asked more than a few times, and mainly by non-southerners, if I’m from England. I know Southernese has a lot of different dialects, so maybe that’s what some people hear. Anyway, he remembered. We talked a little and he was happy to sign the photo of us taken on his birthday.
And speaking of birthdays, October 10 is my birthday. Until now, there was no one I knew of who had died on my birthday. With the passing of Scott Carpenter that is no longer the case. From now on, every birthday I have will remind me of him. But maybe that’s not so bad. True, today was a sad day for many, including myself. But I suppose that when I go it might be nice to also go on a day that won’t be forgotten by at least someone. It’s good to be remembered.
If there is one thing that I will always remember about Scott Carpenter, it is his voice. Soft, assuring, almost melodic. He had one of those voices that you couldn’t help but to love. You would love to just listen. And to think, this gentle man once braved the depths of oceans and strapped on a rocket and blasted into space at a time when no one really knew what would even happen. This gentle man did that? I feel quite privileged to live in a time when I can actually meet people like Scott Carpenter, the pioneers, the modern day Columbus’ and Magellans, those with the right stuff. Carpenter once said, “Curiosity is a thread that goes through all of my activity. Satisfying curiosity ranks No. 2 in my book behind conquering a fear.” Good words from a good man. Thank you, and Godspeed, Scott Carpenter.