Cooper, (Leroy) Gordon

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Cooper, (Leroy) Gordon

(b. 6 March 1927 in Shawnee, Oklahoma; d. 4 October 2004 in Ventura, California), one of the original seven Project Mercury astronauts, first person to make two orbital flights.

Cooper was the only child of Leroy Gordon Cooper, Sr., an air force pilot and a lawyer, and Hattie Lee (Herd) Cooper, a teacher. His first airplane ride was in a Curtiss Robin monoplane, in his father’s lap, when he was five. From that moment, Cooper was devoted to flying. By the time he was eight, his father had fitted the front cockpit of the family’s plane with blocks and cushions so that “Gordo” could operate the controls, and Cooper was flying solo at the age of twelve.

While still in high school, as soon as he was eligible, Cooper joined the United States Marine Corps, because the army and navy flight schools (at that time, the air force was still part of the army) were not taking candidates that year. After graduating from Shawnee High School in 1945, Cooper was called to active duty, but World War II had ended by then. He was assigned to the Naval Academy Preparatory School and was an alternate for an Annapolis appointment. When the primary candidate accepted appointment to Annapolis, Cooper was assigned to duty in Washington, D.C., and served on the Presidential Honor Guard. He was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1946 and joined his parents in Hawaii, where his father was stationed at the time.

In 1946 Cooper enrolled at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu as a civil engineering major and received a U.S. Army commission as a second lieutenant when he joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. While in Hawaii, Cooper met Trudy B. Olson, a licensed pilot herself. The couple married on 29 August 1947 and subsequently had two daughters.

In 1949, for the first time since World War II, the U.S. Air Force called up a batch of flight school candidates. After completing his training, Cooper was assigned to the Eighty-sixth Fighter Bomber Group in Germany. Cooper returned to the United States in 1954 and enrolled in the Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton, Ohio. He graduated with a BS in aeronautical engineering in August 1956. He then attended the Experimental Flight Test School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Upon graduating in 1957, Cooper was assigned to the Fighter Section of the Flight Test Engineering Division at Edwards.

Early in 1959 Cooper was ordered to report to Washington, D.C., along with three of his fellow test pilots, including Donald (“Deke”) Slayton. Before leaving for Washington, their commanding officer warned the four that if the summons had anything to do with flying in space, “be very careful what you volunteer for. I don’t want my best pilots to be involved in some idiotic program.”

The meeting to which the test pilots had been summoned took place on 2 February 1959. After a full day’s briefing about the future manned space program, the sixty-nine pilots in the room were given the choice of staying or returning to their bases, no questions asked. Intrigued and excited by the possibilities, Cooper was one of thirty-two pilots who stayed for the next part of the selection—the medical and psychological evaluations.

Because no one knew what the effects of space flight would be on the human body, the medical tests were, in Cooper’s words, “deliberately brutal.” Yet by the time he returned to Edwards, Cooper, who was in the first batch of candidates to be evaluated, was sure he had made the cut. He felt confident enough about his selection to tell his immediate supervisor to start looking for a replacement for him.

In April, Cooper received word that he and Deke Slayton were among the chosen Mercury 7 astronauts, the first Americans who would fly in space. The only problem for Cooper was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) requirement that the new astronauts be happily married. Cooper and his wife, Trudy, were separated (but not divorced) at the time. He flew to San Diego, where she had gone to live with their daughters, and his enthusiasm sparked hers. They agreed to reconcile and returned to living together.

In addition to astronaut training, each of the pilots was assigned a special area in which to work in preparation for the flights. Cooper worked on modifying the Redstone rocket boosters so they were compatible with manned spacecraft. In addition, he was in charge of designing a personal survival knife for the Mercury astronauts.

Cooper was a free spirit and had a tendency, in the eyes of some NASA officials, to bend the rules too much. He raced cars and boats while in training and accumulated several speeding tickets in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He was not above playing practical jokes at NASA’s expense, either. His reputation, combined with a last-minute crisis, almost cost him his Mercury flight. On 14 May 1963, the day before the launch, he found that his flight suit had been modified by the medical technicians, who had cut a hole in it to insert an additional sensor. This went against the astronauts’ rules, since there was no way of testing the suits so close to launch to make sure the modifications had not damaged them. Cooper angrily climbed into the cockpit of an F-102 fighter jet for what had become, by then, a traditional flight for an astronaut on the day before launch. At very low altitude, he roared past the astronauts’ headquarters, just as Walt Williams, Project Mercury’s operations director, stepped out the door. At the very moment Williams saw the jet, streaking by almost at his eye level, Cooper lit the afterburner. An enraged Williams, already feeling that Cooper did not take things seriously enough, decreed that Cooper was off the mission and that Alan Shepard would fly in his place. Cooper’s supporters tried to reason with Williams, and eventually he relented.

Faith 7, the last of the Mercury flights, was launched the next day, 15 May 1963, with Cooper in the capsule. It was the longest Mercury spaceflight—twenty-two orbits, taking thirty-four hours and twenty minutes. Cooper was the first astronaut to prove it was possible to sleep in space. He was also the first to manually control reentry, although not by choice.

On the nineteenth orbit, the Faith 7’s electrical system started shorting out. One by one, all his onboard electronics shut down. With little to assist him, and with carbon dioxide levels climbing (the oxygen-scrubbing system had shut down as well), Cooper not only brought the space capsule back safely, manually controlling the capsule’s position, he also landed closer to the recovery ship than any other Mercury astronaut.

Two years later, on 21 August 1965, Cooper was commander of Gemini 5, flying with Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. One of the mission’s objectives was to see how astronauts fared on an eight-day journey, the time estimated for a lunar trip. The astronauts also carried fuel cells with them, a new and promising energy source for manned missions. Despite electrical problems with the fuel cells, and navigational errors fed to their computer from mission control, the flight was declared an overall success. At seven days, twenty-two hours, and fifty-six minutes, the astronauts proved the feasibility of a mission to the moon. With the Gemini mission, Cooper became the first person to make two orbital flights and set a record for most hours in space.

Cooper later served as backup commander for Gemini 12 and Apollo 10. It is believed that politics prevented him from being named to a lunar mission. Toward the end of his NASA career, he headed flight crew operations for Skylab. He retired from NASA and the U.S. Air Force (with the rank of colonel) on 31 July 1970.

Following his retirement, he founded Gordon Cooper and Associates, Inc., an aerospace and aviation consulting firm, and he served as vice president for research and development at Walter E. Disney Enterprises, Inc. Cooper was involved in other business ventures, as president or partner, both during and after his NASA career. These ventures included Performance Unlimited, Inc., a race boat manufacturer; GCR, Inc., a race car design firm; and Doubloon, Inc., a treasure hunting equipment manufacturer.

Cooper firmly believed in UFOs (unidentified flying objects) and repeatedly stated he had chased UFOs in 1951, while serving in Germany. He denied reports that he had seen UFOs while flying aboard Faith 7, but he was very outspoken about his conviction that UFOs have visited our planet often and testified at the United Nations on that subject.

In 1970 Cooper and his wife divorced. He married Suzan Taylor on 6 May 1972. They had two daughters. Cooper died of natural causes at his Ventura, California, home on 4 October 2004. Among the numerous awards he earned in his life were the Air Force Legion of Merit, the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

Gordon Cooper’s free spirit and can-do attitude were significant factors in his success as a pilot and in the success of both space missions he commanded. His complete devotion to flight, as a test pilot and a NASA astronaut, resulted in significant advantages to the air force and the U.S. space program. With his winning personality and technical capabilities, Cooper also generated tremendous public support for the young space program. In an age when heroes are scarce, and the very concept is sometimes ridiculed, Cooper proved to be the real thing.

Cooper’s autobiography, Leap of Faith: An Astronaut’s Journey into the Unknown (Gordon Cooper with Bruce Henderson, 2000), gives in-depth information about his career and his UFO convictions. Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (1979), gives insight into the life of the Mercury 7 astronauts and their families. NASA’s biography of Cooper, published for the fortieth anniversary of Mercury 7, gives a good summary of his life and career and is available at Obituaries are in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune (both 5 Oct. 2004).

Adi R. Ferrara

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Cooper, (Leroy) Gordon

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