5-4-3-2-1- Lift Off… Aurora Seven. A capsule named by its pilot,
Astronaut Scott Carpenter, leaves earth for the vastness of space.
It is the second time the United States will
send an American into orbit around the Earth.
The first orbiting astronaut, John Glenn, launched a few months earlier and proved the
United States could indeed successfully send a human being into space, navigate his ship
in orbit, and come home to a pre-determined spot on the planet.
However… could NASA do it again? And if
so, what difficulties might an astronaut face with a more rigorous experiment schedule on
board. These and other questions await answers from Aurora 7.
For months, the second Mercury capsule planned
to take an Astronaut into orbit has steadily been readied on Launch Pad LC-14.
Spacecraft No. 18, fresh from McDonnell’s
assembly line in St. Louis Missouri, has been placed above an Atlas D rocket and painstakingly
readied for the next opportunity to leave earth.
The official mission objective is simple:
“Corroborate man-in-orbit.” The task however, was anything but. It would be complex, sophisticated
and potentially dangerous. Project Mercury, named for the mythical speedy
messenger of ancient Roman gods, was selected as the program name to take American astronauts
likewise speeding into the heavens. The mission would be to study the physiological
and psychological affects of space travel on the human body.
In total, twenty Mercury vehicles were built
and delivered to NASA at Cape Canaveral Florida between January 12, 1959 and May 16, 1963.
Of the twenty, six carry astronauts for a total 54 hours of flight time in space; a
huge feat for space ship the size of a Volkswagen Beatle.
Starting in 1959, a total of 508 volunteer
military service records are screened and whittled down to 110 active duty military
From there, the number was finally reduced to seven, the Mercury Seven, as they would
be known. The word Astronaut (beat) would still need to be invented.
Over a year of training would follow for newly
minted Astronaut Scott Carpenter. Both he and his equally new Aurora Seven capsule would
help take the fledgling NASA onto a journey with the odds slightly in favor of success.
While John Glenn’s’ first orbital mission
was focused on the effects of microgravity on the astronaut and his control of the capsule,
Carpenters mission is more narrowly focused on observing the happenings of his spacecraft
and the experiments taking place outside the capsule.
The early morning launch of the Atlas D rocket
was near perfect (beat) however trouble soon arrived as Aurora 7 slipped into orbit.
As was experienced by John Glenn in the Friendship
7 capsule, the spacecrafts’ pitch horizon scanner, an important navigation device for
properly aligning the spacecrafts orientation to the planet had malfunctioned.
Upon discovery of the malfunctioning scanner,
steps are taken to manually correct the flight path.
However, the adjustments only address a few
of the problems that will plague the mission.
During the first dark side pass, Carpenter maneuvers his craft to observe ground flare
experiments in Australia. By too eagerly pulsing the maneuvering jets to rotate the
capsule from side to side, (beat) as apposed to a much slower method of a controlled “rotate
and wait method,” the limited hydrogen peroxide fuel supply is depleted faster than ground
With the aggressive rotations comes an excessive heat build up inside the capsule. Carpenter
reports that sweat is interfering with his vision and making course adjustments much
more difficult. NASA Flight Doctors note a spike in Carpenters
body temperature to 102 degrees which may explain the slowed speech pattern in various
reports the astronaut has made to ground control.
Engineers meet to plan an abort, however a
discussion with ground technicians and flight controllers resolve to continue the mission.
Soon, planned observations of weightless liquid
and orbital targeting balloons, photography of terrestrial features and other meteorological
phenomena are carried out.
All the while, ground control stations around the globe maintain a watchful eye on the slowly
depleting fuel supply.
Unknown to Carpenter or anyone on else the ground, another malfunction awaits.
A timing mechanism for the retro rockets attached
over the ablative heat shield and key to slowing the capsule for reentry, is not working properly.
As the time to fire the rockets automatically
fire comes and goes, Carpenter must manually flip the trigger switch within a second.
Two seconds later, the light of the three rockets illuminate the night.
Although three seconds may not appear critical,
when one is travelling over seventeen thousand – five hundred miles an hour or literally
five miles per second, three seconds equates to fifteen miles back on the ground.
The incorrect angle of reentry puts the Aurora
Seven spacecraft nearly two hundred and fifty miles off course and further away from the
US east coast.
To survive his decent back into the thick atmosphere of earth, Carpenter would need
to gingerly coax what little fuel remained and make minor reentry angle adjustments to
control his falling capsule by manually steering the capsule and keeping the horizon in view
through his one and only window.
G forces last longer than originally expected on the descent but they are welcome as it
means aerodynamic pressure is being exerted against the capsule and helping to keep an
even trajectory on the way down. At 120,000 feet, Carpenter exhausts the very
last of his fuel controlling the plummeting capsule. If he failed to do so, the capsule
might have toppled completely 180 degrees and face topside down. Such an occurrence
would point the drogue parachute in the wrong direction and snap the capsule back around
so violently that the chute could be destroyed or severely injure Carpenter. Oscillations become worse and the capsule
begins to sway through a 270 degrees arc; almost a full circle. Carpenter has no choice
but to manually deploy the drogue chute early at 26,000 feet, 5,000 feet higher than anticipated,
to stabilize the craft. He holds his breath as the six-foot drogue
comes out (beat) in good shape, and the descent comes back into control.
Soon, the altimeter shows 10,000 feet, Carpenter
manually deploys the chute and slows the craft before splashdown. Back on the ground, Gus Grissom, the second
American in space and now capsule communicator or CAPCOM at Cape Canaveral Control Center
advises Carpenter he had indeed overshot his target area and that recovery teams were on
their way. Approximately 45 minutes after his splashdown,
1000 miles southeast of the Cape, planes from the USS Intrepid spot his location. Two
rescue swimmers soon leap from orbiting helicopters to ensure Carpenter is safe and then proceed
to secure a flotation collar to the bobbing capsule. With the capsule secured from sinking, Carpenter
offers the rescue swimmers food and water from his survival kit thankful for a safe
A few hours later, the second American astronaut to orbit the earth arrives aboard Intrepid
and then to Grand Turk Island for debriefing.
Carpenter is later awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal by Administrator James Webb
during a ceremony held at Cape Canaveral on May 27, 1962 on behalf of a grateful nation.
His successful mission to carryout important
tests and experiments will ultimately show the Mercury spacecraft system can be improved
and become a stable and safe capsule for other manned orbital missions to follow.
From Mercury to Gemini. From Apollo to the
Space Shuttle and eventually, Orion. The contribution of Scott Carpenter and the thousands
of men and women who helped get him to orbit and safely home, started a legacy that continues
to this day.
A uniquely American legacy to learn and create a safe, durable and reliable method for our
Astronauts to explore our world and those beyond the solar system.
But it is only a part in the larger effort
to pioneer the future in space exploration, to lead scientific discovery and pursue aeronautic
research here at home.
Aurora Seven. A critical step on the path to where we will walk (beat) tomorrow.