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Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter Celebrates 50-Year Flight Milestone

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Fifty years ago -- on May 24, 1962 -- astronaut Scott Carpenter blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in his Mercury Aurora spacecraft en route to three orbits of the Earth.

That trip is pretty tame by today's space standards, but back then it was real cutting-edge exploration. Carpenter was only the second American to orbit the Earth. John Glenn had been first, just a few months earlier.

And Carpenter's flight didn't come off without some drama. Because of a mechanical glitch he landed 250 miles off-course in the Atlantic Ocean, and it took nearly an hour for the Intrepid aircraft carrier to find him.

Carpenter, now 87, never flew in space again. A broken arm and an intense passion for the oceans led him to pursue a career in aquatics.

I caught up with the maverick -- a retired U.S. Navy captain and one of only two original Mercury Seven "right stuff" astronauts still alive (the other is Glenn) -- on the half-century anniversary of his flight.

Appropriately enough, we met at a watch store in New York. Carpenter had worn a Breitling Cosmonaute on his historic flight. The watch has now been recreated in a limited Cosmonaute line.

Jim Clash: What sticks most vividly in your mind 50 years after your 1962 Mercury flight?

Scott Carpenter: My Breitling watch [laughs]. No, liftoff is the most fun. In the days I flew, we had computers that could calculate an insertion that would last for only a few orbits. So when I heard from the ground after the booster shut down, "You've got a go for orbits," that was the high point for me.

JC: You overshot your landing area by 250 miles, and were alone floating in the Atlantic while they looked for you. Were you worried?

SC: I am criticized sometimes for this answer. I wasn't concerned because I knew exactly where I was. And I didn't know that other people didn't know. I enjoyed the quiet silence that would precede a lot of answers to a lot of questions in my debriefing. It was a fun time.

JC: Talk about competition in the 1960s with the former Soviet Union's space program.

SC: It was an interesting thing. The competition arose because of the Cold War. In those days, it was felt both by the Soviets and the Americans that pre-eminence in space was a condition of our national survivals. The competition was heated, but it was very respectful, each of the other. And I have to tell you I was very pleased in the early days to see that the Soviets had done what they had done. They were doing everything first -- and better than we were! So we used that competition to do our jobs better. And the competition also inspired the cosmonauts to do better work.

JC: Do you see any irony now, with the retirement of the Shuttle, that we are flying to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz rockets?

SC: I am so overjoyed by the fact that the competition has now transposed itself to cooperation. Space is not an enterprise that belongs to the U.S., or to Russia, or to China -- it is a human endeavor and experience. And that's as it should be.

JC: You are also known for your iconic phrase, "God speed, John Glenn," just before he was about to launch.

SC: That was after T -18 seconds, and it was at a time when I was the only person who could communicate with John. Nobody originally heard that message but John. What he needed to complete his mission was speed. That was the only thing that the [suborbital] guys before him didn't have. And it was also kind of an accepted, 'have a good time,' prayer -- a request from the almighty for the speed that he needed. And he got it.

JC: Was it spontaneous?

SC: Neil Armstrong says that his, "one small step for a man," occurred to him at the last moment. That's what happened with me.

JC: Where were you when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969?

SC: I was in Washington, DC. And I was just thinking, 'hooray.' I was just so proud of us!

JC: Some of the Mercury astronauts flew again on other missions. How come you never went back to space?

SC: It started when I broke an arm, and I was not flight-worthy. So I got involved with the underwater business, and that fascinated me. It was a good way to transfer space technology to the oceans -- which we did [Sealab II]. I got so enchanted by what [Jacques] Cousteau was doing and I was so curious about that stretch of avenue that I switched over.

Jim Clash, a fellow and director at The Explorers Club, will debut the eBook, "The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons in the 1960s," next month (AskMen, June 2012, $12.99)