Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter: An Era of Dynamism


Peggy Noonan recalls: Oh what it was like. “Mission Control, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” “America on the moon.” “Godspeed, John Glenn.” “Come on and light this candle.” “A-OK.” “Four 3, 2, 1, and liftoff, we have liftoff.”

Oh, we did. Those are words and phrases of America’s space program, especially the Mercury program, one of whose astronauts died this week, 88-year-old Scott Carpenter. In 1962 he became the second American to orbit the Earth. He was the one they couldn’t find for a while, when he missed his splashdown point by about 250 miles. It’s tempting to write that all of America was on the edge of their seats while Navy planes searched for him and his capsule, but we weren’t. We knew it would be fine.

But what an era of dynamism, of breaking through, of pushing out, of daring.

The space program gave us a forward-looking attitude, a sense we could do anything in any area. Especially if you were a kid, as I was, age 11, when Carpenter flew. What a gift it was to be young then—America blasting off, the Yankees or the Dodgers always winning. No one cared about government—what bliss—but to the extent we had one it seemed to work. Respectable people like Dwight Eisenhower were in charge, and then, in ’61, the glamour of the Kennedys. People were getting TVs. A whole new way to waste time! But also something else, our culture showing itself to itself, and it didn’t look so bad, especially, again, if you were young.

But the point is the era. It was big, expansive, it was pushing against limits, even against gravity. Now we have shutdowns, ceilings, chained CPIs—it’s all limits. The head of NASA talks about greenhouse gases.

Our children aren’t told by our culture that we can do anything, they’re taught to be afraid by people who are afraid—the future can harm you, hunker down, shelter in place. Really, that phrase captures the mood of our time: “Shelter in place.” Don’t go anywhere interesting, like a planet.

We don’t talk greatness now, we talk problems; and we don’t solve them, we set up processes to address them down the road.

I don’t know who the next American president is, but I know who the next great American president is—someone who remembers and can marshal and bring forth the mood of the old America: “Liftoff, we have liftoff.” “We will do it.” “Endless horizons.” “Home of the brave.” Great nations run on spirit. The next great one will know that. Scott Carpenter, steely-eyed rocket man, rest in peace.

Peggy Noonan’s Blog

One Comment on “Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter: An Era of Dynamism”

  1. […] The Butcher Peggy Noonan recalls: Oh what it was like. “Mission Control, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle […]

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