Sunday, January 13, 2013

Unsung Heroes of the Space Age, Part 1: Rene Carpenter

Scott and Rene Carpenter cut a rug before his 1962 orbital mission. LIFE magazine photo.

I spend too much time writing about astronauts, so I wanted to diverge a bit and discuss some of the unsung heroes of the 1960s space age - namely, the astronauts' wives, who in their own way, probably experienced as much stress (if not more) as their spouses. Author Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club is coming out June 11, looks like a must-read and will touch on the lives of these brave women. 

I'd first like to discuss Rene Carpenter, wife of Aurora 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter. She and Scott were the Ultimate Glamour Couple of NASA during the early 1960s. That notwithstanding, Rene was pretty badass in her own right. She had her own syndicated newspaper column called A Woman, Still, and after her divorce from Scott, she had her own TV show called Everywoman. In this medium, she tackled controversial topics, encompassing feminism and birth control. She also campaigned for Robert Kennedy prior to his untimely 1968 assassination. A 1975 People magazine article discusses her time in the spotlight - she was 47 at the time and showed no sign of slowing down. She was enthusiastic: "I have always been a warm and wonderful wood nymph." 

 Scott and Rene Carpenter, 1959 LIFE photo.

Last two photos: LIFE magazine, late 1960s.
A blog post by My Pretty Baby Cried She Was a Bird is loaded with awesome photos of Rene and Scott. I was always very impressed by Rene's reaction to her husband's very stressful spaceflight - he was actually lost at one point and splashed off-target, freaking out most of the nation (understandably). However, Rene, in the accompanying LIFE photo set, looks calm and in-control. Following his recovery, she said to the press at Cape Canaveral, "I was dry-eyed the whole day. I'm not a brooding person by nature." She was tough as nails. Much respect to this amazing woman who kept it together when most people would've crumbled.

A smile of relief: Rene Carpenter on the phone learning that her husband splashed down safely, 1962 LIFE photo.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Gus Grissom: Where the Road Would Lead...

In a few weeks, the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire will be upon us. Sometimes I wonder what Gus Grissom would have done in his life, had this tragedy not occurred. It's no secret that Gus is still very much loved and remembered by This Space Available. So, here's our take on what Gus would have done if Apollo 1 had gone off as planned. 

There's no doubt there were major engineering and technical problems with the Apollo command module during that time. When Apollo 1 came back, Gus would have vociferously spearheaded efforts to fix these problems. Unfortunately, this would have resulted in a similar delay with the Apollo program, but Gus would wait. In 1968, Apollo 7 and Apollo 8 would have launched, as usual. However, in July 1969, the first man on the moon would have borne the name tag "Grissom." (Sorry, Neil.) The first steps on Tranquility Base would have been his; Deke Slayton admits this himself in his autobiography, Deke! 

Upon coming back from his walk on the moon, Gus would, of course, have had to dive into the business of doing press. Gus was shy and would have hated this, but he at least would have enjoyed hanging out with Bob Hope. After doing a world tour, he would have probably worked at NASA - maybe in Apollo Applications - for another year. He would have retired in 1971. There's part of me that thinks he would have gone back into the Air Force as a combat pilot over Vietnam. 

Following his return from combat - around 1974 - he would have seen his best friend, fellow Mercury 7 colleague Deke Slayton, prepare to make his first spaceflight. This would have overjoyed Gus. On July 15, 1975, Gus would have been standing on top of the Vehicle Assembly Building, watching Deke finally fly into space on Apollo Soyuz. Gus would have been uncharacteristically emotional, punching the air joyously as the Saturn IB rose. 

There's part of me that would have really wanted this next bit to happen: despite the protestations of his wife, Gus would have been bitten by the space bug again. At the age of 50, he would have reentered NASA again as an astronaut. And on April 12, 1981, Gus would have been sitting in Columbia's commander seat. (Sorry, John.) At the ripe age of 59 in 1985, Gus would have finally retired from NASA, but not before commanding another shuttle flight. He and his fellow Molly Brown companion, John Young, would have been called "the old men of space," but Gus would have scoffed at that designation - "There's nothin' old about me."

Gus and Deke would have then co-authored a book together - probably something similar to Moonshot, which Deke wrote with Alan Shepard. Space enthusiasts worldwide would have clamored to see these two space veterans and closest pals just talking about the good old days. 

These days, Gus would still be around, a little shorter than he used to be, but still in good shape. He'd be 86 and would still hate being called "Virgil." He'd have lots of good times tooling around in his vintage Corvette and hanging out with his grandchildren. He'd still miss his best friend, Deke. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Ringing in 2013...House Passes Bill to Rename NASA Dryden As...

...The Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center. More information about this news at Spaceflight Now.

 Your thoughts? Feel free to share them in the comments. Photo by Retro Space Images.