The Recovery Of ‘aurora’


By 36 minutes after splashdown there were two aircraft flying over Carpenter, who was in a life raft outside his capsule. One was Hickman’s P2V. The other was a civilian Piper Apache taking photographs. Carpenter knew that he would be rescued. Thirty-one minutes after that, A1C John F. Heitsch (a pararescue specialist) jumped out of an Air Force SC-54 aircraft. Carpenter didn’t see him come down. When Heitsch swam to the side of Scott’s life raft and shouted, “Hey!,” the astronaut turned in astonishment and asked, “How did you get here?” A few minutes later, Sgt. Ray McClure dropped into the water and swam up to the raft. He and Heitsch inflated their own rafts and attached them to Carpenter’s. Shortly after that, an aircraft dropped a flotation collar, and the two swimmers attached it to the capsule. The next thing into the water was a box dropped by parachute. One of the pararescue men retrieved it after a long swim. Back at the raft, they discovered the box contained a battery but not the radio to put it in. So there was still no communication link between Carpenter and the recovery forces.

Meanwhile, panic had set in among the public. Air-traffic-control facilities in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands started broadcasting the capsule’s approximate location on emergency radio channels, and of course almost every ship and plane in the area started heading toward it. You can imagine the ensuing scene.

On arriving over the capsule, I saw the chaos. In addition to Jimmy’s P2V, there were about a dozen aircraft of various types flying back and forth over the capsule, all of them trying to get a glimpse of Aurora 7 and Carpenter in his raft. Having been an air-traffic controller as an enlisted man earlier in my Navy career, I took charge as an onscene traffic controller. Using emergency frequencies, I directed the planes to circle the area in a left turn. (Having them all going in the same direction reduced the likelihood of a collision.) Next I asked them to identify themselves, then assigned each a different flight altitude, promising every pilot that he’d get his turn to descend to the lowest altitude for a good look and a chance to take pictures. As a result, they were stacked up like aircraft waiting for landing approach into a fogged-in airport. Meanwhile, the Intrepid , hurrying toward the capsule at her flank speed of nearly 40 knots, launched two HSS-2 helicopters to precede her to the site.

After floating for about three hours, Carpenter was picked up by one of the helicopters. As it began to raise him out of his raft, either a swell rose or the winch operator mistakenly lowered the cable, and Carpenter was momentarily submerged in water. He did manage to keep one hand, holding his camera, out of the water to protect his precious film. Finally, the lift successfully hoisted Carpenter aboard the helicopter. Both P2Vs escorted the helos back to the Intrepid and circled while Carpenter stepped out onto the flight deck.

As we were returning to Roosevelt Roads, Carpenter was flown from the Intrepid to Grand Turk Island. The destroyer USS Pierce picked up Aurora 7 and took the spacecraft to Roosevelt Roads. The next day it was flown back to Cape Canaveral, but not before I took its photograph.