How TV Covered the Mercury-Atlas 7 Flight

Scott Carpenter died yesterday at the age of 88. A member of the Mercury 7 (named for Project Mercury, NASA’s first manned space program), he was the sixth human in space and the fourth from the United States. Carpenter’s death leaves John Glenn the last survivor of the Mercury 7. An obituary can be found at The New York Times.

Carpenter’s Mercury-Atlas 7 flight took place on Thursday, May 24th, 1962. By all accounts it was a near perfect early morning launch, blasting off at approximately 7:45AM Eastern time. He orbited the Earth three times in his Aurora 7 capsule. Almost five hours later, he encountered equipment problems that led to him splashing down hundreds of miles from his target area around 12:45PM.

NASA lost communication with Carpenter and for about 40 minutes, tens of millions of viewers watching on television waited anxiously, concerned that he had not survived reentry or splashdown. Eventually, a helicopter spotted Carpenter afloat in his life raft, alive and well. It was not until around 4:38PM that he was picked up by a helicopter and taken to a nearby aircraft carrier.

I haven’t come across any comprehensive account of what sort of television coverage the networks gave Carpenter’s flight. Jules Bergman anchored the ABC coverage, Walter Cronkite the CBS coverage and Frank McGee the NBC coverage.

The Paley Center for Media has ten hours of CBS News coverage, as well as what appears to be hour-long special recapping the flight and recovery. Based on the limited information in the Paley Center database, it appears CBS aired live coverage from around 7AM to at least 5PM, starting before the launch and ending with his rescue.

Likewise, the NBCUniversal Archives has a significant amount of material relating to Carpenter’s flight, including a 19-part kinescope collection. The first half covers 7AM to 11:30AM and the second half likely covers 11:30AM to 5PM. There is also a half-hour NBC News special anchored by Frank McGee that was broadcast from 11:15-11:45PM.

Here’s a brief segment of NBC News footage, which could be from the late-night special:

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NBC-TV would later estimate that some 65 million people watched at least some of the coverage of Carpenter’s flight, compared to a similar early estimate of 96 million for John Glenn’s space flight on February 20th [1]. According to CBS News, it provided 86% of CBS-TV’s network hours the day of the flight, a record up to that point [2].

The day after the Mercury-Atlas 7 flight, Jack Gould called the uncertainty surrounding Carpenter’s survival “the longest and most agonizing ‘stand-by’ in broadcasting’s history” while noting it “was bridged with tact and understanding yesterday by the networks and stations of radio and television” [3].

Of the network news anchors, Gould had this to say:

Their assignment — and that of all the others doing a running commentary — was undoubtedly as difficult as could be asked. They had to report instantly the realities of the anxious interlude without putting into so many words the fears that were on the mind of everyone. Depending upon which network a viewer was watching at a given moment, he could find expressions of guarded optimism on the outcome or straight non-committal reportage pending developments. [4]

Gould described the quality of the television coverage, which featured an Air Force telescope connected to a TV camera as well as an experimental CBS portable camera unit, as “a credit to the electronic medium’s versatility” [5].

He concluded his look back by suggesting “the drama never reached the exhilarating peak that attended the first flight of Marine Lieut. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr.; last night a widespread reaction undoubtedly was one of silent thanks that a day of anxiety had passed without misfortune” [6].

Works Cited:

1 “NBC estimates 65 million saw orbit on tv.” Broadcasting. 28 may 1962: 10.
2 Ibid.
3 Gould, Jack. “Radio-TV: Painful Gap.” New York Times. 25 May 1962: 67.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.


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