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Cooper, L. Gordon, Jr.free

(06 March 1927–04 October 2004)
  • Lisa Ruth Rand

L. Gordon Cooper.

Tempera, pencil and ink on board, 1963, by Boris Chaliapin.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine.

Cooper, L. Gordon, Jr. (06 March 1927–04 October 2004), test pilot and astronaut, was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, the only child of Leroy Gordon Cooper, Sr., and Hattie Lee Herd. Young Gordon developed a taste for flying at age five when his father, an early military aviator, started taking his son for airplane rides and occasionally giving him the controls. Growing up among his father's aviator associates, and completing his first solo flight at age twelve, the young man whom friends called "Gordo" assumed that flying was a natural part of being human.

After spending his childhood in Shawnee and Carbondale, Colorado, eighteen-year-old Gordon Cooper enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps just as World War II ended. After being discharged, he moved to Oahu, Hawaii, where his father was stationed. While attending the University of Hawaii, Cooper met the flight instructor Trudy Olson. They married on 29 August 1947 and remained on Oahu until Cooper transferred his U.S. Army ROTC commission to the U.S. Air Force. After flight training in Texas and an assignment in West Germany, in 1956 Cooper earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Cooper graduated from test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in California in 1957 and remained at Edwards as a performance-engineering test pilot until April 1959, when he was selected to be one of the first seven American astronauts.

These first astronauts flew as part of Project Mercury, a slate of missions intended to test human functioning and capabilities in space. Cooper and his fellow Mercury astronauts were selected from a large pool of military candidates who underwent rigorous physical and psychological testing. They were also vetted for their suitability as public figures. By the time astronaut testing was under way, Cooper had separated from his wife, Trudy. Recognizing that a stable married life was considered essential for astronaut candidacy, the couple agreed to uphold their marriage through the selection process and the intense media coverage that would follow. Trudy and their two daughters would be present for press events before, during, and after Cooper's flights.

In the years leading up to his Mercury flight, Cooper undertook a vigorous training and publicity schedule. He used his engineering background to consult on Mercury spacecraft and systems, and he served as backup crew and capsule communicator on preceding flights. While all Mercury spacecraft names were appended with the number 7 to represent the size of the first astronaut cohort, Cooper named his space capsule Faith 7 to commemorate his trust in the spacecraft, his team, himself, and God.

On the day before his flight Cooper flew a NASA F-102 jet airplane low and fast past the launch structure and NASA support buildings. The stunt nearly cost him his flight when it rattled the offices and nerves of administrators on-site. However, his superiors intervened, and Cooper and Faith 7 launched aboard an Atlas 130-D rocket on the morning of 15 May 1963, making Cooper the sixth and ultimately final astronaut to fly into space under Project Mercury and the last American to fly solo in space.

Cooper conducted several important experiments during his flight, including a test to determine how well an astronaut might judge distance during rendezvous. He provided valuable biomedical data on the effects of extended spaceflight on the human body—and used his renowned ability to nap anywhere by being the first astronaut to get a full night's sleep in orbit. After completing twenty-two orbits, Cooper was ready to come home. However, the onboard electrical systems began to fail, including the automatic instruments that were supposed to bring his spacecraft back to Earth. Cooper controlled the entire reentry manually, from aligning the spacecraft and firing the retrorockets to push the spacecraft Earthward, to deploying the parachutes for landing. In spite of the difficulty of this task, Cooper achieved the most precise landing of the entire Mercury program, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean within four miles of the recovery carrier USS Kearsarge. He returned to cheering crowds and ticker tape parades, and President John F. Kennedy awarded Cooper the NASA Distinguished Service Medal at the White House.

Cooper would fly in space a second time as the command pilot of Gemini 5, the third crewed flight in the Gemini program. The larger, two-person spacecraft used during Gemini allowed NASA to test several procedures necessary for the moon landing during the subsequent Project Apollo. Cooper and his pilot, Pete Conrad, were assigned an eight-day flight—the longest yet for American astronauts—during which they attempted the first on-orbit rendezvous and tested new fuel cells, both necessary prerequisites for a Moon mission. Gemini 5 launched on the morning of 21 August 1965 and landed after completing 120 orbits around Earth. After being passed over for an Apollo flight, Cooper resigned from NASA and the air force in 1970.

Following Cooper's retirement, he and his wife divorced, and Cooper married Suzan Taylor, a teacher, with whom he had two more daughters. Cooper worked for the Walt Disney Company during the 1970s, and later he became known for his public inquiries into UFO sightings and his claims of extraterrestrial contact. Cooper developed Parkinson's disease later in life and died from heart failure in Ventura, California. His ashes were flown into space aboard an uncrewed SpaceX spacecraft bound for the International Space Station in 2012.

In the popular 1983 movie The Right Stuff, Cooper was portrayed as a brash, womanizing braggart whose skills nonetheless matched his boasts. While Cooper and his associates denied the more negative aspects of this portrayal, he embraced the exaggeration with good humor. As one of America's first astronauts, Cooper exemplified the ideal of a precise, experienced, technically savvy fighter pilot astronaut—an image that would persist in the American cultural imaginary through the Cold War and beyond.

Bibliography

An oral history with Cooper may be accessed through the NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. Cooper participated in the group memoir of Project Mercury, M. Scott Carpenter et al., We Seven (1962), as well as published his autobiography Leap of Faith: An Astronaut's Journey into the Unknown (with Bruce B. Henderson, 2000). His participation in the American space program is widely covered in popular and scholarly space history literature, including Loyd S. Swenson, James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury (1966); Francis French and Colin Burgess, Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961–1965 (2007); and Colin Burgess, Selecting the Mercury 7: The Search for America's First Astronauts (2011). The official astronaut biography of Cooper may be found on the NASA Johnson Space Center Web site, and an obituary appeared in the New York Times, 5 Oct. 2004.