Those who attended the opening ceremonies of Lake Cowichan’s 75th anniversary party got to hear some words of wisdom from Dr. Bill Carpentier. He spoke at length at a special event the previous evening. (Lexi Bainas/Gazette)

Dr. Bill Carpentier: from Lake Cowichan to Apollo moon-landing team

NASA physician tells his story during Lake Cowichan’s 75th anniversary celebrations

Before a packed house at the Lake Cowichan 50+ Centre on Aug. 16, local businesswoman Denise Allan introduced her uncle, Dr. Bill Carpentier as “my favourite world famous physician.”

Carpentier took the stage and took the audience on a fascinating journey.

“This year is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s flight to the moon. It was an incredibly important event in my life. How did a kid who grew up in a small town on Vancouver Island get to become involved with that incredible adventure?”

Born in Edmonton, he moved with his family to Lake Cowichan right after the Second World War.

“I was nine years at the time, and I have very many fond memories of the time I spent here. It was a good place for me to grow up. It was a friendly town, we had a good school system. Even after all these years away, when I come back here, I still have this feeling of coming back home.”

After graduating from high school, he fulfilled a dream: take flying lessons.

He managed to get in some of his cross-country training by flying home to Lake Cowichan.

“I would fly over our house on North Shore Road and land on the lake where the weir is now.”

Carpentier said that those flying lessons played a big role in his life; he even considered becoming a military pilot. But he decided on medicine, going to the University of British Columbia in 1957.

But history was trailing him.

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and, four years later, a space craft with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on board. These achievements stunned the world. President Kennedy then stepped up to say the U.S. would land a man on the moon and get him back safely.

“Those two events certainly changed my world. The space race was on,” Carpentier told an enthralled audience.

About the time of Gagarin’s flight, Carpentier was looking around for a medical specialty.

He discovered an opening at Ohio State University in aviation medicine, joining the program in July 1962.

“While I was at Ohio State, six Mercury pilots flew into space and I followed each flight with great interest and envy.”

NASA was using military flight surgeons at that time but since the U.S. congress wanted space exploration to have a peaceful aim, “NASA was actively recruiting civilian flight surgeons”, he said.

Carpentier was interested but wondered if his being Canadian would mean closed doors for him. But instead those doors opened, as if by magic.

“I told them I would really, really, really, really, really like to do that but since I was down in the U.S. as an exchange visitor I did not have a work visa.”

At that time, he would have had to return to Canada for two years before applying for a green card.

“But they said: ‘Oh, we can fix that’ and they did.

“So we went to Houston; it was two months before the first Gemini flight.”

Carpentier was starting from ground level, because not a lot was known about the physical effect of space flight on the human body.

The first efforts saw both the men and their Mercury space capsules hauled up aboard ship but they found that the men’s heart rates increased and the blood pressure dropped. They even lost weight.

“NASA decided that a physician should be in the helicopter that would pick up the astronauts. It was also decided that that physician should be prepared to jump into the ocean with the navy rescue swimmers in case medical aid was required.”

The doctor who was assigned to that job had a problem: he wasn’t a good swimmer. He backed out.

Step forward Dr. Carpentier, who’d spent summers at Lake Cowichan swimming. He also swam at OSU, when he’d been there.

“My boss heard I was a swimmer and asked if I wanted that job. I stated I could hold my own in the water with anyone and I thought it would be a great job to have.”

He found out that the navy had regulations. He had to get training, and not just any old training: he had to be able to jump out of a helicopter and be hauled back in a horse-collar.

“Before I was heading out to Galveston [for this], one of the Mercury flight surgeons that was still there told me that he was told that the navy frogmen jumped out at 40 feet in the air, going 30-40 knots. I said: OK, if that’s what they do, that’s what I’ll do.”

When he explained to the helicopter pilot what he needed to do, the pilot said, “You want to do what? You can’t do that. You’re going to get hurt…We started out low and slow…nothing to that…but when we went 25 feet in the air going 20 knots, I knew it. I just said to the commander: Let’s just do it. I’ve got to say I was able to do it. So we did it, and I hit with a real good bang. But, I’m still here.”

When he went out to the aircraft carrier for the recovery of Gemini Five, he met a group of husky young men from the underwater demolition team [called frogmen then, navy Seals now].

“Any one of them could carry me under one arm across the deck. The officer looked down at me and said, ‘Have you jumped out of a helicopter before?’”

Carpentier was able to tell them somewhat gleefully what he had achieved.

Of course the reply was, “You did what?”

The physician’s main task was getting an incapacitated astronaut out of a space craft and do CPR “on a pliable life raft in five to six foot seas. I felt that if I couldn’t figure it out, there was no one else who could, and besides, no one else wanted the job.”

They spent many hours in the water practising for the rescue. When they came to the Apollo program, they had done their preliminary work and needed no more medical testing.

“All we needed to do was a standard flight physical examination, give them a pat on the back, and wish them, God Speed!”

There was also a new problem with landing on the moon: to “prevent back contamination to the earth from the lunar surface.”

So, the crew was carefully scanned before and after for that, too.

Carpentier was eventually assigned to the first lunar mission (Apollo 11).

“On July 16, 50 years ago, Apollo 11 launched. And on July 20, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made a successful landing on the moon. The first part of President Kennedy’s goal was accomplished.”

By July 24, the second part was also successful: they brought the crew safely home.

“It was then that the most important part of my job started. Because of the quarantine requirements…we were taken down to the hangar deck, walked across the deck to the mobile quarantine facility. I closed the door and locked it. No one could get out and nobody could get in.”

They worked for hours getting all the testing and samples done, and then they had a break.

“I mixed martinis, we toasted this incredibly successful flight and that marked the end of the first day.”

The Apollo program allowed them to flesh out what they had learned during the Mercury and Gemini flights.

From Mercury to Apollo, data was collected on 34 different astronauts.

“These data have never been fully assembled and some of the data has been difficult to find. My current project is to try to remedy that situation. I have been able to collect all of the data that was collected during Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and I am compliling a complete, comprehensive data base that I have completleld in the next few monhts.

“I am hoping to be able to publish this data together with a preliminary analysis of all three programs.”

Looking back, “I feel very fortunate to have been involved in what has been described as the greatest adventure and the greatest peacetime technological achievement of the 20th century. I consider that I was at the right place at the right time. but it was pointed out to me by one of the Apollo astronauts that being in the right place at the right time won’t mean much if you don’t have the right skills.

“As I’ve grown older, I’ve been asked: if you had your life to live over again, what would you do differently. I can honestly say I would do nothing differently. I would have the same life, the same career, I would marry the same woman, I would have the same sons, I would have the same family.

“I’ve also been asked what advice I could pass on to the younger generation. The only advice I would have would be: never pass up an opportunity to learn anything new [and] something I learned from Neil Armstrong: It is never a good idea to take yourself too seriously.”

Carpentier said he thought the most important legacy of the space program was those photographs of the earth taken from space.

“They have caused people from all over the world to view the planet in a new way. The poet Archibald McLeish wrote: ‘To see the earth as a truly is, small and blue and beautiful in the eternal silence where it floats is to see ourselves as riders on that earth together.’ Stephen Hawking wrote in his last book, ‘When we see the earth from space, we see ourselves as a whole, we see unity and not divisions. It is such a simple image with a compelling message: one planet, one human race.’”

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