The recent death of Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, has been on my mind. The news stories about his death, harking back as they cannot help but do to the very earliest days of space travel, take me back to my own early days: my childhood at the Manse in Queensborough, where I now find myself again all these years later.
I vividly remember, as a little kid growing up at the Manse in the 1960s, the excitement around space travel, and the Apollo moon program especially. I remember watching on the black-and-white television the liftoff of Apollo 11, bound, incredibly it seemed, for the moon; and the front page of the Globe and Mail the day after Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon’s surface, with probably the biggest headline in the Globe’s entire history: MAN ON MOON – in green ink! (Quite something for the grey old Globe. I assumed then, and perhaps I was right, that green was chosen because of the old fairy-tale bit about the moon being made of green cheese.)
And I remember, though dimly, the strained days when all the world was watching and waiting to see whether NASA could get the crippled Apollo 13 back down to Earth, or whether those astronauts would be lost to the immensity and eternity of space. I’m not sure a more dramatic tale has ever been told, and I of course adore Ron Howard’s movie about it:
I also love The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe‘s excellent recounting of the dawn of the American space program and the assembling of the Mercury astronauts, and the movie that was subsequently made of it. (And I have just discovered that a 30th-anniversary edition of that splendid movie has just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD. Which leads me to ask: Where did those 30 years go?)
Do you remember the thrilling scene in The Right Stuff when John Glenn‘s rocket lifts off to begin the first orbit of the earth by an American? And the spine-tingling voiceover from Houston Control: “Godspeed, John Glenn.” It was, as you probably know (or have read in recent days) fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter who spontaneously came up with that blessing – because that, essentially, was what it was – upon his colleague as he began an exciting and terrifying and dangerous and world-changing mission. And as you may also have read after Carpenter’s death, it was the salutation that John Glenn, the last surviving Mercury astronaut, returned to his colleague at the latter’s funeral in Boulder, Colo.: “Godspeed, Scott.” How can those of us who grew up in the early days of space travel fail to be moved by that?
Here is a great clip, not from The Right Stuff but from NASA, of the actual event, and Scott Carpenter’s famous words:
Those were heady days, weren’t they? I have a very long-ago memory of being maybe eight years old and lying on my back on the grass in the Manse’s front yard on a clear, bright day, looking up at the infinite sky and marvelling at the notion of humans being up there. It seemed like a miracle. And I guess, really, it was.
I thought it was interesting that the beautiful hymn Be Still My Soul, set to Sibelius‘s gorgeous melody Finlandia, was sung at Scott Carpenter’s funeral – at his request. When I listen to it, I think the lyrics must have meant a lot to someone who once upon a time, with his fellow pioneers – Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton – pushed the bounds of what humankind could do, and fearlessly and confidently brought us into the space age: “Be still, my soul: your God will undertake/to guide the future, as in ages past./Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;/all now mysterious shall be bright at last.”
Here’s that beautiful hymn. Have a listen. And: Godspeed, Scott Carpenter.