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Space pioneer speaks to Harpur Forum

By : Susann Thiel


A living icon of American history came to Binghamton earlier this month to honor a fellow pioneer and share his enthusiasm for the future. M. Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and a pioneer in deep-sea exploration, gave the keynote address at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Link Foundation and spoke to nearly 400 business and community leaders at the Harpur Forum’s annual dinner on June 7.

“The future of space and underwater exploration looks cloudy from time to time,” said Carpenter, noting that the human body has not yet been able to adapt to ocean depths greater than 2,000 feet. The barrier against space exploration is somewhat different, he said, with questions about America’s willingness to remain committed to a vibrant space program despite the economic and emotional costs.

Carpenter addressed a lunch-time gathering of trustees and guests of the Link Foundation, which was established by inventor and explorer Edwin Link and his wife Marion, and helped dedicate the Marilyn C. Link Conference Room in the University Libraries before speaking at the Forum’s annual black-tie dinner.

Carpenter, now 78 and living in Florida, served as backup pilot for John Glenn’s inaugural manned orbital space flight. In 1962, he flew the Mercury spacecraft Aurora 7 on the nation’s second manned orbital flight and its first space science mission.

His many awards and honors include the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He holds five honorary degrees. Following service in the Navy in the Korean War, he was chosen to test new and experimental Navy aircraft that pushed the laws of physics to their limit.

Carpenter was tapped by NASA when the newly formed space agency sought candidates with the “right stuff.” The commanding officer of Carpenter’s carrier ship threatened to only let him leave “over my dead body,” but Carpenter replied, “ ‘Captain, I’m going to fly around the world three times in the nose of an ICBM.’ You can imagine his reaction to that. That started a marvelous time in my life…The camaraderie among those of us who are still here lasts to this day, and it is a thing of beauty.”

During their training Carpenter and his fellow astronauts (including Glenn, Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard) witnessed a number of disastrous practice launches. Explosions rocked the launch pad with each attempt. “It was disconcerting,” Carpenter admitted, “but we were undaunted by what we saw and we pressed on.”

They pressed on through various multiple-G force simulations jokingly characterized as “eyeballs in, eyeballs out, eyeballs left or right” based on how they were strapped into the centrifuge. They endured “low-residue diets” that would “completely shut you down during a flight, because the man/machine interface was an ‘insoluble’ problem,” Carpenter said.

After three years of training, Carpenter’s Aurora 7 lifted off at Cape Canaveral to blaze a new trail in history. His flight suit registering 102 degrees, Carpenter had to take manual control of the aircraft on several occasions due to a series of malfunctions. Too much fuel had burned prior to re-entry, forcing him to drift in orbit, and the capsule was a bit off course – but the space flight was considered a resounding success. Carpenter even managed to solve the mystery of the “fireflies” reported by Glenn.

Rather than “space critters,” as some in NASA secretly thought, the glowing particles around the craft proved to be flakes of frost knocked off the capsule during flight.

Carpenter believed space technology could be transferred to deep sea exploration, also in its infancy. He traveled to MIT to meet the famed Jacques Cousteau and his son, Philippe. “I spent a lot of time on Calypso,” he said, and at Cousteau’s urging, Carpenter approached the Navy about developing its oceanographic technology program.

He characterized the Navy’s Sealab program as “drastically underfunded” yet it nonetheless contributed to significant advancements in oceanographic exploration and such technology as enabled the Navy to recover Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell space capsule from the ocean floor at 19,000 feet and for NOAA to operate its Aquarius Undersea Laboratory off the Florida Keys.

Carpenter said he is also heartened by the recent launch of a Mars-bound rocket. “We don’t have competition any more,” Carpenter said. “The Soviet Union provided great resolve for us to go to the moon. Two words, though: China lurks. Maybe we should be glad for that. Their competition will inspire us.

“Don’t worry about the space program. It will continue,” Carpenter asserted. “There is no way we can stop it now. Those who died in Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia – it would make their sacrifice meaningless. That will not happen. If we honor their curiosity and supply some perseverance, we will prevail.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08