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Second in U.S. to orbit Earth

October 11, 2013|Steve Chawkins and Eric Malnic
  • President John F. Kennedy congratulates Scott Carpenter, with his family watching, on the astronaut's three-orbit flight in 1962.
President John F. Kennedy congratulates Scott Carpenter, with his family… (Associated Press )

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 13, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 4 inches; 163 words Type of Material: Correction
Scott Carpenter obituary: In the Oct. 11 LATExtra section, the obituary of Scott Carpenter, one of the original Project Mercury astronauts. included several errors. The list of surviving family members identified his son Robyn Jay as a daughter and gave an incorrect number of stepchildren. Carpenter is survived by his wife, Patty; four sons, Robyn Jay, Matthew Scott, Nicholas Andre and Zachary Scott; two daughters, Kris Stoever and Candace Carpenter; three stepchildren, one granddaughter and five step-grandchildren. Carpenter was predeceased by two sons from his first marriage, Timothy Kit and Marc Scott. Additionally, the article said that Carpenter joined the Navy's V-5 flight training program after his high school graduation. In fact, he applied and was accepted to the Navy's V-12a program in the spring of 1943, before he graduated. The article also said that Carpenter was not a combat pilot; as the article went on to note, he flew patrol and surveillance missions in the zone of conflict during the Korean War.

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."

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