Last week, astronaut Scott Carpenter died at the age of 88, and while I was thinking of a suitable way to honor the man, much as I did for Neil Armstrong, I was also in the midst of many distractions that prevented me from publishing something I thought worthy. This Sunday essay from newspaper colleague Roger Aylworth appealed to me because it said everything I wanted to say, in a way far better than I could say it, while at the same time paralleling my own experience with Carpenter’s spaceflight. Roger was kind enough to let me repost it here. – Anthony
Losing a hero is tougher when you’ve actually met him
By ROGER AYLWORTH
Originally published in the Chico Enterprise Record 10/13/2013 12:55:03 AM PDT, reprinted here with permission.
I lost one of my personal heroes last week and, unlike most of my heroes, this was a man I actually met.
It was May 24, 1962, and I was an 11-year-old, sitting on my parents’ beige carpet, watching my family’s black-and-white television when I was first introduced to Scott Carpenter.
He was sitting on a vertically aimed bomb, called a missile, that was about to make him the second American to orbit the earth. The first, John Glenn, made his flight in February 1962.
I watched in juvenile fascination when the rocket fired and Carpenter rose so very slowly on a column of flame. It was loud, it was scary and it was cool beyond all question.
Like the vast majority of Americans, I had no clue about the array of problems, some of them life threatening, that plagued Carpenter’s flight.
Carpenter never flew in space again, but that didn’t matter. He was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts. All seven were presented to the nation as space knights, dressed in silvery space suits, wearing helmets that looked a lot like white plastic fish bowls with a clear movable window in front.
Carpenter was never one of the magic names. He wasn’t John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. He never walked on the moon. In fact, he never again went into space. He did utter some famous words but I’ll talk about that later.
Decades later, after I had already put many years into the news business, Carpenter gave me one of those moments when being a news reporter is about the best job on the planet.
In my line of work, one spends a lot of time dealing with the evil and desperately sad parts of life, but there are other times when I have had the opportunity to meet great, honorable, sometimes even historic people.
For me, meeting Carpenter was one of those glorious moments.
Even though I told the man he was one of my personal heroes, he treated me as if we were we just two guys chatting. He was pleasant, candid, open, and also a Mercury 7 astronaut. I said to him, “I remember, as a young boy, watching your launch.” At the time I was in my 50s.
The pilot, astronaut, deep sea explorer and author took a minute to look at my girth, my silver hair and my general grandfatherly visage and said, “You know, you really know how to hurt a guy.”
I don’t think I actually hurt his feelings, but I do think, unlike some of my younger colleagues, I showed him I knew who he was and why I should care that he was visiting my town. I liked Scott Carpenter. He treated me as an equal — more or less — and that is one of the nicest things a truly historic figure can do for a mere mortal.
When John Glenn, who is now the last remaining member of the Mercury 7, was being sent aloft on his historic orbital flight, Carpenter was the “capsule communicator” or “cap com,” the man in the control room who spoke directly to the astronaut.
When Glenn’s rocket ignited and began its skyward climb, Carpenter said, “Godspeed, John Glenn.” Today I say, “Godspeed, Scott Carpenter.”
Roger H. Aylworth is a staff writer with the Enterprise-Record. His column appears every Sunday and he can be reached at 896-7762 or @RogerAylworth on Twitter.