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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Scott Carpenter, Aurora 7, and Boulder

Scott Carpenter (photo NASA)
Fifty years ago today, astronaut Scott Carpenter became the second American to orbit the earth. The 1960s were a busy time for our space program, so the 2010s are going to be a busy time for 50-year space achievement anniversaries.

I've been a bit of a space junkie ever since I was a young boy with my Kmart telescope and Space Shuttle models. My very first "Do you remember where you were..." moment was the Challenger disaster, and even when NASA wasn't in the spotlight I was getting up in the middle of the night to watch Shuttle launches and landings.

One of the perks of being a student at CU-Boulder is the university's history of producing astronauts (20 at current count, which I believe is more than any institution other than the military academies) and our strong involvement in building space craft and experiments (we're the top NASA-funded university in the world). There's a great exhibit in the CU Heritage Museum where you can see a moon rock, various spacesuits and equipment, and artifacts collected from the Challenger wreckage that belonged to CU alumnus Ellison Onizuka, who died in the disaster.

CU can trace much of this proud space history back to Scott Carpenter, a Boulder native. I'm reminded of him almost every day: I live across the street from Scott Carpenter Park and I route my runs behind Aurora 7 Park, named for Carpenter's Mercury spacecraft (which I've seen in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry). After Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom made sub-orbital flights, and John Glenn made a three-orbit flight, it was Carpenter's turn. The flight was designated as a science mission and not everything went well, as discussed in this video:


This video makes it look like Carpenter did a lot of work to save a ship with malfunctioning guidance equipment and a lack of fuel, although Chris Kraft's comments in the documentary When We Left Earth and elsewhere make it sound like Carpenter was willingly pushing the craft to its limits, even when instructed not to. I suppose in the end it just makes for a good story, as whatever headaches Carpenter might have caused were replaced by the wealth of data Carpenter collected about the Mercury spacecraft and what's possible in spaceflight.

Carpenter returned to earth and to Boulder a hero, and locally he has been anything but forgotten. Here's a sampling of some great local articles written about him in the past few weeks:

Boulder Daily Camera: Scott Carpenter leaves mark on Boulder, 50 years after blasting into space
Boulder Daily Camera: Carol Taylor: Boulder declared Scott Carpenter Day in 1962 after historic spaceflight
CU-Boulder: CU astronaut-alumnus Scott Carpenter looks back at 50th anniversary of Aurora 7 mission

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