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One of America's first astronauts has died. Scott Carpenter was part of the original Project Mercury team and he was the second American to orbit the Earth. Carpenter died this morning in Denver after complications from a stroke. He was 88 years old. As NPR's Russell Lewis reports, Scott Carpenter made it into space just that one time back in 1962, but he continued his pioneering ways.
RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: In the early 1960s, space travel was anything but routine. It captivated a country. When Scott Carpenter rocketed to space aboard Aurora 7, tens of thousands of people watched in person from central Florida and millions more on television.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Five, four, three, two, one, zero.
SCOTT CARPENTER: I feel the liftoff. The clock has started.
LEWIS: There were so many questions in those early days: Could people function in space? Would their blood boil? And even, could humans eat? That was one task Scott Carpenter had to complete during his five-hour mission. On this scratchy recording, you can hear him answer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CARPENTER: Before the food crumbled, it was quite easy. It's no problem to eat this bite-sized food in a weightless state. I also drank some water at that time, which was no problem.
LEWIS: Scott Carpenter orbited the Earth three times. He barely had a moment to himself. Check blood pressure, maneuver the capsule, take celestial measurements. Carpenter got behind in the flight plan and NASA's controllers were worried. Here he is talking to fellow astronaut Alan Shepard about his re-entry plans.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALAN SHEPARD: How are you doing on re-entry attitude? Over.
CARPENTER: Well, I don't know yet.
LEWIS: During the final orbit, the engines didn't fire at the right time. It was later determined to be a technical malfunction. Carpenter's capsule splashed down 250 miles off-course. At first, NASA applauded the mission but later was bothered by the blemish. This is Chris Kraft, NASA's flight director at the time, in a 2001 NPR interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
CHRIS KRAFT: I just don't think he had an appreciation for this position that he had put himself in or frankly put the space program in.
LEWIS: NASA historians say that criticism is unfair. Francis French has written several books about NASA's early years.
FRANCIS FRENCH: I think that's where some of the misconceptions about his flight come in because he did try to do everything. And he managed to do everything, but it did mean that the mission didn't go 100 percent according to the checklist.
LEWIS: French says later flights were easier because NASA cut down what it crammed into each flight. French says Carpenter was important for another reason. He wasn't like the other astronauts.
FRENCH: Carpenter had a certain awareness and curiosity that he really understood space in a way that some of the more formal, traditional test pilots never really brought back for the human experience.
LEWIS: The Mercury mission would be Scott Carpenter's only trip to space, but not his only difficult assignment. In 1965, he spent a record 30 days under the Pacific Ocean as part of an undersea endurance test. Later in life, Scott Carpenter chided the U.S. for cuts to the space program. In this forum at the National Air and Space Museum, he urged people to get involved.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED FORUM)
CARPENTER: We haven't figured out yet how to energize the public behind this pursuit. If we knew how to answer that question, we'd be on our way. I don't know how to do it.
LEWIS: Scott Carpenter: former Navy commander, test pilot and Korean War veteran, also a pioneer of America's space program. Russell Lewis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.