For Spacious Skies

by Scott Carpenter and Kris Stoever

Published by Harcourt

368 pages, 2003


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Poetry in Space

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

 

The cover of For Spacious Skies is deceptive. It leads you to expect the biography of yet another prominent and accomplished man, filled with the sort of rah-rah "you can do anything you set your mind to" truisms we've come to associate with books of that nature. For Spacious Skies is, however, a different type of journey altogether.

Scott Carpenter was one of the astronauts canonized by Tom Wolf's The Right Stuff. He was the fourth man in space, the second -- after John Glenn -- to orbit the Earth. That orbit was controversial and fraught with peril as was, in many ways, his journey both in and out of the capsule. For Spacious Skies brings us all of that -- up close and personal -- but it does it in a way that simply hasn't been done before.

The most obvious difference is the tone and tense. With the exception of the astronaut's one-decibel accounts of parts of his orbital mission, For Spacious Skies isn't told in the first person:

Scott would remember the sunrises and sunsets as the most beautiful and spectacular events of his flight aboard Aurora 7. "Stretching away for hundreds of miles to the north and south," they presented "a glittering, iridescent arc" of colors that, he later wrote, resolved into a "magnificent purplish-blue" blending, finally, with the total blackness of space.

This distance of form, however, doesn't establish a distance of spirit. If anything -- and oddly -- the opposite is true. The third person narration lends the text an objectivity that simply isn't possible with a first person voice. Whether or not this objectivity is genuine should be left to the individual reader, but it does help to give the sort of overview that makes the reader feel they are getting an unbiased report.

That's not to say that For Spacious Skies isn't a personal memoir. It is at times deeply personal, beginning with the dissolution of Carpenter's childhood family ("It would be their last journey together as a family," Carpenter writes in the prologue, describing their arrival in Colorado in 1927) to a not dissimilar dissolution of his first marriage ("It would be their last journey together as a family," he writes of the Carpenter's 1969 move to Bethesda, Maryland in a neat piece of resonance just before the epilogue.)

Co-authored by Carpenter's writer/editor daughter Kris Stoever, For Spacious Skies is everything a book about the space program should be. It is richly detailed, informative and exciting, at times deeply moving, it examines America's space program in the 1960s from the inside as well as one man's path both in and out of it.

For Spacious Skies ends beautifully and cryptically. It's cryptic enough that I can share that ending with you here without fear of giving anything away, and it's a lovely passage, one that somehow captures that spirit of Carpenter's book:

The space race is over. Men have walked on the moon. Old friends and pioneers are gone. Still, a frontier's cardinal rules remain unchanged: be ready in trouble, endeavor to be a jolly companion, and, tell good and true stories around lonely campfires.

It is said the nights on Mars are cold and long. | January 2003

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.