We watched the black and white TV in class, images broadcast live from Cape Canaveral. Wisps of vapor, spotlights and innumerable holds in the countdown - it was experimental technology, after all. It wasn't until I stood next to an Atlas rocket at the Kennedy Space Center that I understood what the early astronauts risked to carry our country's flag into space.
Scott Carpenter grew up in Boulder and attended the University of Colorado. He was a Navy test pilot and became one of seven men chosen to fly the Mercury space craft - America's first. Carpenter was fourth to fly, second to orbit. Banging on the wall of his tiny ship, he loosed "fireflies" into space. They were actually flakes of frozen liquid adhering to the metal skin separating him from a nearly absolute vacuum.
Carpenter's craft, named Aurora 7, malfunctioned during reentry but he was able to compensate, returning safely. The rudimentary control system allowed for little precision and he overshot his intended landing site by several hundred miles. America held its collective breath during the hours it took to find him - bobbing contentedly in a raft, satisfied at a job well done.
He never flew in space again.
Commander Carpenter died today here in Denver at age 88. His legacy? In his time the dangers of space flight were largely unknown, and unexplored. A significant number of launches rose inches above the pad before exploding catastrophically. Yet he and the others of the Original Seven allowed themselves to be bolted into a can, plopped upon tons of highly explosive fuel and launched into the skies above Florida in the service of science, their country and ultimately beginning the peaceful exploration of space.
God speed, Scott Carpenter.