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Mercury Atlas 7

"I hope we have enough fuel."

Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter autographed this photo of himself wearing his Mercury spacesuit. Photo Credit: NASA
Astronaut Scott Carpenter In Mercury Space SuitAmericans were euphoric over the success of John Glenn's flight in February. The next Mercury flight was scheduled for May of 1962 with Donald (Deke) Slayton tapped as its pilot.

On March 15, 1962, it was announced by NASA that Deke had been removed from MA-7 and replaced with Malcolm "Scott" Carpenter.  The medical community was concerned over an erratic heartbeat that Deke had been experiencing. With only two months left before the scheduled mission, there was not much time left to train a replacement.

Even with the limited amount of time left for training, the mission objectives chosen for MA-7 were much more aggressive than those of MA-6.  Carpenter's flight was to become a scientific flight crammed full of observations, maneuvers, and experiments.

Carpenter named his spacecraft Aurora 7 and it lifted off with an Atlas rocket on May 24, 1962. No problems occurred during the launch.  Inside of the spacecraft, Scott was surprised that the ride on top of the Atlas was as smooth as it was.

Perhaps this was the quiet before the storm.  Carpenter's flight would soon begin to unravel. The mission timeline, chock full of objectives, was too much for anyone to handle. Astronaut Carpenter fell way behind with the tasks that he needed to do.


There were so many planned maneuvers that the maneuvering system fuel level became dangerously low. For this reason, much of the last orbit was spent in free drift mode.  In that mode the steering jets are simply turned off.  An incorrect switch setting exacerbated the excess fuel consumption when a hurried Carpenter neglected to turn off the automatic control system during manual operation.  At the start of reentry a concerned Carpenter radioed, "I hope we have enough fuel."

Retrorockets are used to slow the spacecraft down so that it can leave orbit and reenter the Earth's atmosphere. The automatic retrorocket firing system on Carpenter's spacecraft failed.  He had to initiate the burn sequence manually.  Astronaut Carpenter did so, but he was 3 seconds late on his action.  This delay would cause him to go long and miss the planned recovery zone by up to 15 miles.

Another problem with Carpenter's setup for reentry was that the required attitude for the spacecraft during reentry was off by 25 degrees.  This error would add another 175 miles to Carpenter's landing miss.

The performance of the retrorockets was 3 percent low.  This added yet another 60 miles to the length of the miss.  So the accumulated error was around 260 miles when Aurora 7 splashed down.  This distance was out of range of radio communications from mission control.  Astronaut Carpenter was alone floating in the ocean.

NASA knew before losing communications that Aurora 7 was long and would miss the recovery zone. The public and newscasters were not privy to this information.  Concerned listeners knew that that spacecraft should have already landed.  But where was it and was the astronaut safe? Walter Cronkite who was broadcasting for CBS News wondered if we had lost an astronaut?

In time,  the public's anxiety would be assuaged as they would learn that Carpenter was safe. Recovery of the astronaut and the spacecraft went very well, albeit hours later than originally planned.  The mission was a success but the errors committed on reentry were something that NASA vowed never to repeat.  Space flight was far from routine.

Aurora 7 orbited the Earth 3 times with mission duration of 4 hours, 56 minutes, and 5 seconds.

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UPDATED : January 9, 2007
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