BOOK REVIEW: “For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut” by Scott Carpenter and Kris Stoever (2002)

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One of the unsung problems about biographies about astronauts - particularly the early ones - is that they’re all essentially supermen. It’s sometimes hard for audiences to fully identify with these people simply because they were, to a man, better, stronger, faster, smarter, and luckier than damn near everyone who ever lived. And they were specifically chosen for these qualities. They had to be - it was an arduous and likely horribly dangerous enterprise in which being able to keep your head in a crisis, or being able to hold your breath for three minutes rather than two could spell the difference between life and death. If you were qualified, and applied for Mercury or Gemini, or even Vostock and Voskhod, and if you committed the unforgivable sin of merely being *above average,* you were out on your ass before ink they used to write down your IQ dried.

But supermen are hard to write about because, well, they’re super. They’re not like you and me. Not in the ways that count. Oh, sure, they may put their pants on one leg at a time just like you, but guess what, jack, their pants are a space suit, and yours are an old track suit that you’re wearing around town because you just stopped caring after that second divorce. It’s the way it goes. It’s not your fault any more than it is theirs: they’re just built do different specifications than the rest of us. Well, I guess it is a *little bit* your fault. You probably could do something about the weight, at least…but I digress.

Back at the dawn of the space race, NASA announced the “Mercury Seven” - our first-ever astronauts. Alan Shepherd, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, Deeke Slayton, John Glenn, and Scott Carpenter. All these men had insanely successful, heroic lives before them, and they all went on to noteworthy things afterwards. Shepherd, first American in Space, and fifth man on the moon, retired from the Navy as an admiral and was a self-made millionaire. Gus Grissom fought in World War II and Korea, had hundreds of hours as a test pilot, was the second man in space, flew the first Gemini mission, and became America’s first space martyr in the Apollo fire in 1967. John Glenn was a Marine aviator in World War II and Korea, then a Test Pilot, then the first American to orbit the earth, then a Democratic Senator from 1970 to 1998, then he flew a Space Shuttle mission. Wally Schirra learned how to fly a plane while still in his teens, and spent his adolescence as a barnstormer and a wing walker in flying circuses, fought in World War II and Korea, the requisite test pilot duty, then he flew a Mercury mission, a Gemini mission, and an Apollo mission. Gordo Cooper was a test pilot in the years after World War II. He did a Mercury mission and a Gemini mission, then retired from the space program to become a vice president of R&D for the Disney corporation, and helped design Epcot. Deke Slayton flew combat missions over Japan in World War II, got a degree in aeronautical engineering, a kerjillion hours as a test pilot, but, owing to a late-developing heart problem, he never got to fly his Mercury mission. Nor a Gemini one. He spent sixteen years waiting for his flight working as NASA‘s director of manned space flight, and finally got it commanding the final (And prestigious) Apollo mission in 1975. Retiring from NASA in the early 80s, he got involved in private industry aerospace. And then there was Scott Carpenter…

My point being that all these men were touched by the gods for greatness from before birth. Even if there had been no space program., they all would likely have ended up as household names anyway. These were not the faceless engineers and middle-aged accountancy majors of modern-day NASA, these were by their nature just awesome figures, the kinds of people that can pull out any situation, save any narrow scrape. You know full well that if any of these guys had been on board the Challenger when it blew up, no one would have died. The smoke would have cleared and the cameras would have found Shepherd or Schirra parachuting down with a big, dumb smile, holding the rest of the crew in his arms. That’s how big, how heroic, how cool they were. You say Captain Kirk is your hero? Bah. Piss on him! Captain Kirk ain’t nothing’ compared to Glenn or Grissom.

An example of this fundamental, and daunting, superiority is apparent in this book in one scene when Carpenter is speeding home late at night, looses control of his car, and sails over a cliff, landing on a ledge half-way down with pretty serious injuries including - but not limited to - nearly detaching his own scalp. Since there was nothing more to do for it, he scaled the cliff face bare-handed in the rain, with his scalp flapping off the back of his head like a loose toupee. He got to the top, and flagged down a passing car in the distance, then suddenly realized how awful he must look, and nonchalantly re-adjusted his own semi-detached scalp on his head so as not to frighten any women who might be in the car.

Good lord!

As a boy, Carpenter loved to run and was on the track team. He grew up on Colorado, living at high altitude, and was a track star. When he joined the military, he had twice the endurance of anyone else at cross-country running. Why? Because he grew up in oxygen-starved lands, and running at sea level was hence ridiculously easy for him.

Good lord!

It just goes on and on and on like that. The man was larger than life even as a child. We go through his formative years, growing up in a broken home with a longsuffering abandoned mother and a pretty much worthless (but successful) deadbeat dad that he never saw, in something akin to abject poverty. We go through the normal stuff about his schooling, his time at Annapolis, his first love and marriage, his career as a naval aviator and test pilot, wildcatting around the world, some daunting cold war military stories, all in roughly the first half of the book, or about 200 pages, give or take. After that, he gets involved in the Mercury Program, and all the arduous testing and bizarroworld qualifications they used for that, the funny stories, the camaraderie, the temper tantrums, the endlessly unblinking eye of the press, the total absence of privacy for years at a time, and the simultaneous shock and relief of getting bumped up in the flight rotation when Deke’s heart problem became apparent.

We’re in Chapter Thirteen - page 276 - before we actually get in to space, and we only spend 19 pages there, though they are endlessly fascinating and harrowing pages. The remainder of the book talks about Carpenter’s post-flight life: Dinners at the white house, a brave rescue of some endangered children in his neighborhood, Gradually loosing his interest in space, getting unfairly blacklisted by NASA for a trivial offence that may not have even happened, and his new career as an Aquanaut on Sealab II, and ensuing health problems resulting in his retirement from the navy. There’s a breif coda about his divorce(s), and then it ends rather abruptly.

So there’s really two problems the authors of this book are faced with: one, the main character is essentially a guy who’d win a battle of wills against Patton, and two: he really only spent five hours in space. That leaves a whole lot of pages to fill up, and it’s hard to tell engaging stories about someone who is inherently so much better than most of the audience. It’s a tough sell.

The book is co-written by Carpenter himself, though this mostly takes the form of some extended passages that Stoever - the overall writer - segues in to and out of. Primarily this is Stoever’s book, but he makes a good run of it. He tends to emphasize Carpenter’s obvious dashing charm and aw-shucks nature rather than his more obvious superhuman traits. It’s a fairly common dodge to humanize a larger-than-life figure, and it mostly works. Certainly I know a lot more about the man than I did before, certainly I have a better feel for his personality, his outlook, but strangely I still feel there’s something missing. I feel like I only know the external guy, and not what’s going on in his head. Part of this is implicit in the structure of the book, which emphasizes his hardscrabble early years to the point where Scott himself is merely a supporting player in the first third of the story, and it almost completely neglects any mention of his life after leaving the navy.

This would be more acceptable if this was a book that focused on the man’s career, his ‘main sequence’ years as it were, but it doesn’t. Instead it divides its focus between the people who made Scott Scott - his mom, his friends, his grandfather, his piece-of-work jackass of a dad, his wife - and then spends most of the central third of the book dividing its narrative between Scott the man, and his wife. Ultimately this approach works against the book - his mother, Toye, emerges as nothing short of heroic herself, keeping Scott fed, clothed, and housed, despite having no money, making sure he stayed in school and strove for more than their cruddy little town could offer, and making sure he had positive male role models to offset the negative one he had in his generally-absent father. She’s essentially the main character of the first third of the book, and she remains an important one through its first half, then all-but-evaporates in the second half. We’re told that she was on hand when her son got a medal from the President in 1962, a year before she died, but that’s it. No mention of her funeral itself, Scott dealing with his mother’s loss, his awesome debt to her putting her own life on hold for decades to make sure he grew up right even under terrible privations. Instead, she’s just gone, and that feels false, wrong, cheap. The resolution of his tortured relationship with his father - in which he basically gives his dad his comeuppance - also gets a one-line resolution which is less than satisfying.

Likewise, we’re never given any indication that the Scott Carpenter household was anything other than harmonious, if stressful, and it’s painted as a happy, healthy Navy marriage despite the obvious strain that the invasive eye of the NASA and the press put on them. When we’re abruptly told they moved to Maryland and got divorced it literally comes out of nowhere, and I had to read the passage several times just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood it. Where did this come from? And why? And how? To be honest, it’s not hard to figure out a marriage could disintegrate in those conditions, but his wife was such a major factor in the book, and a worthy apprentice to his sainted mother Toye, that it just feels fundamentally dishonest that we don’t get any mention of their marital difficulties until he moves out of the house. It’s as if the author is saying ‘oh, yeah, all that stuff about a happy family we spent two hundred pages going over - that was only half the picture, and I’m not going to tell you the other half now that you know I’ve been deliberately misleading you’.

Some of this is the inherent peril of co0writing a biography of a person with the actual subject of the biography. You don’t want to piss them off or make them look bad, and why dwell on the bad stuff? Well, I get that, but rather than dwell on it, I would have liked to at least have some acknowledgement that there were troubles a-brewin’. Indeed, it conflicts with the painstaking down-to-earth image of Scott that the author(s) are trying to paint. His three subsequent marriages get less than a paragraph’s mention.

Another annoying aspect of the book is that Stoever resists telling the story in straight linear fashion in favor of jumping around all over the place. That’s not entirely fair - the book is mostly linear, but at entirely random intervals, the author jumps forward or backwards in time by years or even decades to tell us some anecdote or footnote or whatever tied to the incident. This is frequently clumsy, and often tedious. For instance, in the last section of the book, we flash back a decade earlier to an incident during survival training in the Navy when Scott realized he was scared of deep water, then we’re told he resolved to overcome it, and this sets up his interest in becoming an Aquanaut on Sealab II. I know all this stuff is real, but it felt like a retcon. It would have been far more effective to mention the incident in chronological order during the section in the book on his Naval career, and then have it haunt him as a driving influence until he finally had a chance to act on it with the Sealab program. There are several examples of this kind of thing in the book, and after a while it gets to bug ya.

Those are the bad things. There’s lots to recommend it, though: We get a pretty fascinating (if occasionally whitewashed) Horatio Alger story of a poor kid from nowhere who grows up to be a wildly successful astronaut, we get a warts-and-all perspective of how awful it was to be an unwed mother in the great depression, and a worms’ eye view of rural poverty, which is much worse than you’d expect. We get a fascinating window in to the origins of NASA and the internal politics of the organization, which were labyrinthine and Byzantine even in their earliest days, apparently. Chris Kraft, the NASA flight director, emerges as the villain of the second half of the piece. We get a surprisingly candid view of the Glenn family in particular, and the bonds of deep friendship all seven of these type-A personalities developed with each other. The windows in to their family lives are whitewashed, but still kind of fascinating - on the one hand, it’s so low key, on the other hand they never had a moment to themselves. The occasional glimpses of the Kennedy whitehouse are likewise fascinating.

I’m not a fan of Kennedy, but the off-the-camera impressions of him that turn up in this book do make a strong case for him being an endlessly compelling and friendly guy personally, and not just the dude who botched the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, and got us in to Vietnam. Even though we’ve had the Kennedy Assassination drilled in to our heads a zillion times over, it still manages to come across as shocking and tragic in the book, mainly because it’s reflected in the lives of Carpenter and the other astronauts. The Glenns were particularly stricken - Glenn was the only democrat among the Mercury 7 - and it was the main factor that led him to go in to politics when he did. For Carpenter and the rest, the death of Kennedy for a short while seemed to be the death of the space program itself, and it was unclear if they’d be going on to the moon, or if that was the end of it. I didn’t know that. Sure, we all know how it came out, but it was interesting to see how the fate of huge government agencies rests on who’s in or out of office, as reflected in the lives of the people dedicated to those agencies.

Kennedy’s wife and occasional sex-partner, Jacqueline, comes across much better here than I’ve ever seen her before. I never got the whole “Jackie O” fascination. Part of that is that I’m not gay, I guess, but the glamour of the Camelot era is mostly lost on me, and I never really bought her as Guinevere. In fact, she always seemed rather manish to me - 5’10”, deep voice, not really very good skin, kind of a big hind end, and those 60s fashions always looked silly in my eyes. I never got the grace and charm that everyone else saw, presumably because I didn’t live through those times myself. If you’ve got to have an unattractive first lady who insists on constantly being in the news, I think I’d rather have Eleanor Roosevelt, simply for her tireless efforts for human rights. The book goes a long way towards making me understand what people saw in Jackie, though, and it does this by pointing out what I, myself, always noticed: She’s kind of an awkward duck.

When we put that 500 pound gorilla on the table - as the book immediately does - suddenly the mystique is lifted and real person emerges as a very engaging, well educated lady who goes out of her way to strike up genuine friendships with the astronaut’s families and help them - in subtle ways - through the pains of living in the limelight.

So that view of the Kennedys was worth the price of admission for me - I get it now. At least a piece of it, a glimmer of personality that I was missing before.

So the book is worth reading, but it’s kind of rough going, and while I won’t accuse it of being self-serving, it does have many confusingly glaring omissions.

One final incident to close out my review: after his flight in space, back on earth living in the suburbs, a hurricane hit Texas. After it passed, Carpenter went outside to clean up his yard of fallen branches, and saw - to his horror - the neighbor kids across the street had come out to play and were walking straight in to a downed power line, snaking and arcing along the ground. Without screaming ‘look out’, without even thinking, Carpenter grabbed an axe, ran across the street, not to the kids, but to the tower holding up the power lines, and swung at it, chopping the line off nearly at the source, out of harms way, and saving the kids lives while endangering his own.

Whoever or whatever Scott Carpenter is - astronaut, aquanaut, naval aviator, poor kid from the sticks, serial monogamist - he is fundamentally a hero who would risk his own life for others without thought of his own safety. He’s a man who gets things done, who sets his sights on something and doesn’t let up until he’s beaten it. He’s a guy who’s better than you and me, despite some obvious rough patches. This book gives us a window in to his life, but I never feel like we really get to know who he is.

Which is a shame.