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Godspeed: Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter dies at age 88

2:15

NASA pioneer astronaut Scott Carpenter died Thursday at the age of 88 due to medical complications from a recent stroke, leaving John Glenn as the last living member of the Mercury 7.

Carpenter had been hospitalized after suffering a stroke last month at his home in Vail, Colo. Word of his death at a Denver hospice came from family friends and was confirmed by his wife, Patty Barrett.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden paid tribute to Carpenter in a statement: "As one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, he was in the first vanguard of our space program — the pioneers who set the tone for our nation's pioneering efforts beyond Earth and accomplished so much for our nation."

Second American in orbit
Carpenter was born on May 1, 1925, in Boulder, Colo., the son of research chemist M. Scott Carpenter and Florence Kelso Noxon Carpenter. He was commissioned in the U.S. Navy in 1949 and designated a naval aviator in 1951. Carpenter flew a variety of missions during the Korean War, became a test pilot and was selected as one of the Mercury 7 in 1959.

He had a special connection with John Glenn, a retired senator and astronaut who is still in good health at the age of 92. It was Carpenter who served as the backup for the Friendship 7 mission on Feb. 20, 1962, which made Glenn the first American in Earth orbit. And it was Carpenter who radioed, "Godspeed, John Glenn," from NASA's Cape Canaveral blockhouse as his colleague headed for history.

Carpenter became the second American in orbit on May 24, 1962, when he piloted his Aurora 7 capsule through three orbits. During that flight, he became the first American to eat solid food in space (in the form of energy snacks called "Space Food Sticks").

"When he went into orbit, instead of just worrying about being a test pilot, he was trying to analyze everything that was happening up there," said Jay Barbree, NBC News' Cape Canaveral correspondent. "That's why I call him the first scientist-astronaut."

One of Carpenter's discoveries pointed to the source of the mysterious "fireflies" that Glenn saw shining outside his window during the Friendship 7 flight. Carpenter thumped the side of his spacecraft and found that he could shake more of the sparkling specks loose from the capsule. "Scott discovered they were actually the moisture from the astronaut's body, which was released and dissipated outside into the cold," Barbree said.

Carpenter's splashdown generated some controversy because he overshot the designated landing zone, and it took 40 minutes for the recovery team to spot him in his life raft. Flight director Chris Kraft later complained that Carpenter used too much fuel during the flight, but Barbree said an investigation traced the fuel loss to equipment malfunction.

Aurora 7 was Carpenter's only spaceflight: He was removed from flight status after breaking his arm in a motorcycle accident in 1964, and left NASA in 1967.

Proud to be an aquanaut
In addition to his astronaut experience, the former naval aviator participated in the Navy's SeaLab underwater training program as an aquanaut. "He was just as proud of being an aquanaut as being an astronaut," Barbree recalled.

After his retirement from the Navy in 1969, Carpenter took on a number of business ventures and served as a movie consultant in the fields of spaceflight, oceanography and the environment. He wrote two novels as well as an autobiography, "For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut," which was co-written with his daughter Kris Carpenter Stoever.

Image: John Glenn and the Carpenters
Former astronaut Scott Carpenter stretches a hand behind his head to greet senator-astronaut John Glenn at a 40th-anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon mission on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2009. At right is Carpenter's wife, Patty Carpenter. Scott Carpenter, who orbited Earth in 1962, died on Thursday in a Denver hospice center at age 88 of complications from a stroke, his wife said. Larry Downing

When Glenn returned to orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998, Carpenter said the space missions that he and his Mercury crewmates flew were part of a decades-long effort that would ultimately send humans to Mars and beyond. "All these flights will one day lead to manned exploration of other worlds outside our own solar system," Carpenter said in an essay written for NBC News. "That will not be soon. But it is inevitable."

He gave his most famous phrase a reprise for Glenn's launch: "Good luck, have a safe flight, and ... once again, Godspeed, John Glenn."

Carpenter is survived by his wife, Patty; six children, Jay, Kris, Candace, Matthew, Nicholas and Zachary; one granddaughter and five step-grandchildren. "We're going to miss him," Patty Barrett Carpenter told The Associated Press.

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