As the Aurora Seven capsule passes over the Hawaii ground station, mission controllers are getting tetchy.
“Aurora Seven, can we get on with the checklist? We have approximately three minutes left of contact.”
“Roger. Go ahead with the checklist. I'm coming to retroattitude now and my control mode is automatic and my attitudes…standby. Wait a minute, I have a problem in…”
At mission control in Florida, Flight Director Chris Kraft grits his teeth. If the capsule isn’t pointing in the right direction for re-entry, it will bounce off the atmosphere or burn up. Either way, Carpenter will be dead.
“I have an ASCS [Automatic Stabilization and Control System] problem here. I think ASCS is not operating properly. Let me... Emergency retrosequence is armed and retro manual is armed. I've got to evaluate this retro…this ASCS problem…before we go any further.”
But Carpenter is running out of time. Kraft later admitted that mission control had no idea what was going on.
‘The Man Malfunctioned’
The capsule passes out of range of the Hawaii ground station and into radio silence.
As Carpenter travels across California, a few minutes later, everything seems to be back on track and the astronaut back to his chatty self:
“Okay. I can make out very, very small…farm land, pasture land below. I see individual fields, rivers, lakes, roads, I think. I'll get back to reentry attitude.”
The spacecraft plummets to Earth, buffeted by the atmosphere and swinging wildly backwards and forwards; Carpenter’s rising heart rate starts to worry the medics. He might even be having a heart attack. The last word comes at 4.55:
“Aurora Seven, Aurora Seven, Cape Cap Com. Be advised your landing point is long. We will jump air rescue people to you in about one hour.”
[Carpenter] “Roger. Understand one hour.”
Aurora Seven splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, 250 miles off course and out of radio contact.
Kraft swore that Carpenter would never fly in space again (he didn’t). The chapter on Carpenter in Kraft’s autobiography is called ‘The Man Malfunctioned’, so you get the gist of how he felt.
But read the entire transcript of Carpenter’s mission and a whole different story emerges. The astronaut gave the most vivid descriptions of the space environment and the Earth beneath him. He conducted the first scientific experiments in orbit, in a cramped, malfunctioning capsule against an overly ambitious mission schedule.
There were times when he was totally isolated with no contact from the ground and yet, when things were going wrong, he still managed to splashdown safely.
The transcript of Carpenter’s flight makes compelling reading, you get a sense that both the astronaut and his support team were feeling their way through the mission. However much training they’d done, they were still having to figure stuff out as they went along.
Even 50 years later, getting to space and back is hard. Soon, the Dragon capsule will be approved for human spaceflight and then the stakes will be even higher. SpaceX has only succeeded because it learned the lessons of the past. From the failures, disasters and near disasters like the Carpenter mission.
Other new space ventures would be wise to do the same. After all, the generation of scientsts, engineers and support staff that built Telstar and got Carpenter safely back to Earth have done it all before.