March 27, 2013 9:25 pm

Reporting on The Explorers Club Interview with Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter


Jim Clash and Scott Carpenter

Jim Clash interviewing Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter at The Explorers Club, March 15, 2013. Photo Credit: © 2013 Stacey David Severn.

The following blog post is written by StarTalk Radio’s Social Media Coordinator, Stacey David Severn.

Something I’ve noticed about meeting people who have accomplished great things is that they are very accessible. Having “done it all,” they have nothing to prove, and they’re not out to impress.

This past weekend, I was privileged to attend two “Exploring Legends” interviews as part of The Explorers Club Annual Dinner (ECAD) weekend. The interviews, which were conducted by Jim Clash, were with the last two surviving Mercury astronauts, Scott Carpenter and John Glenn. A long-time adventure journalist, Clash is on the Board of the Explorers Club, founder of the “Exploring Legends” series and author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s” and “Forbes To The Limits.” Most of the members of the audience were Explorers themselves, with accomplishments and stories worthy of their own interviews, and I hope I get to hear each of them tell their stories someday soon.

I arrived at The Explorers Club for the Scott Carpenter interview on Friday afternoon. On the staircase, I ran into moonwalker and Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke and his lovely wife Dottie, and Scott Carpenter and his wife Patty. Shortly after that I found myself having a conversation with Duke and Carpenter about using Photoshop to make everyone at the family picnic seem like they’re looking at the camera, and I remember marveling at how cool and natural it was to have an ordinary conversation with these extraordinary men. (By the way, I did use Photoshop on a photo of Duke to open his closed eyes, but that’s our secret!)

Charlie Duke, Scott Carpenter and friends at The Explorers Club

Counterclockwise from bottom left: Charlie Duke, Scott Carpenter, photographer Elliot Severn and StarTalk Radio Social Media Coordinator Stacey David Severn. Photo Credit: © Stacey David Severn.

Carpenter’s interview began with laughter when the astronaut-turned-aquanaut was introduced as having seven children and “living in Colorado with Patty” – to which he said “She’s my wife, too!” Jim Clash then greeted the veteran astronaut with the phrase “Yatsesool,” which sounded like a different language to me, but in fact was early test pilot jargon used in code over the radio in times of difficulty. Yatsesool is “Stay loose” spelled backwards.

Jim’s first question was one that had a poignant answer: “Can you tell us about the origin of the famous phrase, ‘Godspeed, John Glenn’?”

Scott Carpenter had the very last radio linkup to the Mercury capsule. It occurred to him that John Glenn’s experience wasn’t altogether new, but was different from his predecessors. Glenn was about to ride in a much different, bigger, more powerful rocket that would give him the speed (18,000 mph) required for orbit, and he had to endure the launch for much longer in order to achieve that speed. The phrase “Godspeed” was used as a bon voyage, a prayer, and in this event, the phrase was strictly pertinent to what John needed; he needed speed. In Carpenter’s words, “This statement (Godspeed) was appropriate because it was a conversation between me and “our maker” to give John the speed he needed. I didn’t think of it until it was spoken. It sprang from the issues of the moment, and was my way of saying good luck John.”

After John Glenn successfully completed three orbits around the earth, Carpenter’s mission was next. Carpenter became the second American to orbit the Earth, conducting numerous experiments during his flight. Near the end of his mission, a malfunction moved his vehicle off course, causing him to have to manually control re-entry. He splashed down about 250 miles off course, where he sat in his capsule for a long time, bobbing on the ocean, waiting for the USS Intrepid to arrive and pick him up. Jim asked Carpenter what he was thinking during that time, and this was his reply:

“I was not thinking about anything having anything to do with Intrepid, I didn’t even know Intrepid was part of that scene. That was immediately after the most incredible experience I’ve ever had and I was remembering THAT.”

Describing the physical sensations of his launch back in the early days, Carpenter told us, “A launch is just hard work. You don’t see much, all you do is feel the acceleration, and that’s manifested just by the increase of the sense of weight of your own body. It’s harder to lift your hand. Everything is heavier…All of that just goes to make the sudden onset of zero G all the more welcome. It’s a freedom that’s hard to explain. I think you need to have spent a lot of time under water to appreciate part of the sensation, but it’s the greatest relaxation that I’ve ever, ever imagined, ever experienced. It’s addictive too.”

After his NASA flight, Carpenter turned his attention from space to the deep sea. He lived on the ocean floor for 28 days doing research in SEALAB II back in 1965, and has been involved in sea exploration since.

Scott talked about how space and sea exploration are complementary, and how a lot of things in the early space program that were very important to the work outside of the capsule – footrests, for instance – are also used to work outside the habitat in the water. “And I think that’s where the first footrests were recognized as valuable as stirrups…Where war is concerned…the most valuable contribution of man to conduct a war is not the machine gun, it is the stirrup because it provided stability to a man aboard a horse, and it changed the nature of war. And footrests in extra vehicular activity in space and in the water revolutionized man’s capabilities both places.”

With regard to our current space program, Carpenter is an advocate who is convinced that our highest purpose in space now is flight to Mars. He frowns on our dependency on other nations for our space program, and talked about the motivations of the people in our early space program: patriotism, a need to excel, curiosity, and perhaps most powerfully, the competition of the Soviet Union. “That came from the fact that at that time, we in our program felt that pre-eminence in space flight is a condition of this nation’s freedom. That is what all of us felt in the early space program in this country.” He’s glad to see the U.S. cooperate with Russia now instead of competing. Although we’ve lost a competitor (Russia), Carpenter is consoled by the fact that China “lurks,” and that both nations are nobly inspired to explore the universe. He feels that if we could work out the differences between the two nations and relate to each other as brothers, that competition could do great things for expanding our knowledge involving the solar system.

When asked about fear, Carpenter’s words were similar to those of the other astronauts: “Fear, when properly used, is a welcome companion in any situation.”

Scott Carpenter was very happy when John Glenn went back into space on the Shuttle in 1998. His admiration and bond with Glenn was so apparent when he speaks, I found it extremely moving. Just as Glenn had ambitions outside of his profession (political), Carpenter had other ambitions (oceanic), although their journeys had no bearing on their bond, which remains as strong as ever.

Carpenter has seen the aging astronauts’ principal task shift to teaching, rather than doing. He ended his interview saying, “All kids need inspiration, and that’s what we’re in the business of.”

I extend my heartfelt thanks to Scott Carpenter, Jim Clash, and The Explorers Club for a weekend of inspiration, for providing the stage for education and inspiration for the past 100+ years, and for their continued efforts going forward.

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