And then there was one.
Of the seven men chosen initially to explore space on behalf of the United States, only John Glenn remains with us. Scott Carpenter, the second American astronaut to orbit Earth, died today at age 88.
Now only Glenn is left. The former U.S. senator from Ohio, in 1998, became the oldest man to fly in space when he took part in a mission aboard the shuttle Discovery.
Carpenter had just one flight into space. It was on May 24, 1962 aboard Aurora 7, the tiny Mercury capsule that made three orbits around the planet. Carpenter’s capsule splashed down off the Puerto Rico coast, but missed the mark by a couple hundred miles. The world waited as Navy ships searched the ocean before finding Carpenter safe and sound after his harrowing mission.
Those were the days, of course, before we took space flight for granted. That was before it all became “routine,” as if soaring off a launch pad atop a flaming rocket, accelerating to 17,000 mph ever was like walking your dog through the neighborhood.
My mother and I would get up early in those days to await those launches. We’d wait literally for hours on end in some cases. In the case of Glenn’s flight, we waited several days as one glitch after another resulted in the flight being “scrubbed” for the day.
Carpenter, and the six men chosen with him, embodied the can-do spirit of the time. We were involved in a space race with the Soviet Union, which had launched the first satellite in 1957 and put the first man into space in 1961. We were still playing catch-up when Carpenter took off. But we got to the moon first and, well, the rest is history.
Speaking of “can-do spirit,” recall that Donald “Deke” Slayton was one of the Mercury Seven, but he was grounded because of a heart murmur. He remained on active flight status until 1975 when he finally got the “go” sign from NASA and he took part in the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission that hooked up with the Soviet spaceship 200 or so miles above the earth’s surface.
Scott Carpenter and his fellow space travelers helped bring a generation of young Americans — such as me — along for a glorious ride into the unknown.
John Glenn is the last of that illustrious corps of explorers.
Just as Carpenter famously said “Godspeed, John Glenn” as his colleague took off in February 1962, let us now wish Godspeed to Scott Carpenter on his own final journey.