Col Gordon Cooper

Unlikely hero of the space race whose exploits inspired the bestseller 'The Right Stuff'

Gordon Cooper, known as "Gordo" to his friends, was one of the one of the most unlikely heroes of the space race between the United States and Soviet Union. Many of his Mercury astronaut colleagues found it difficult to understand how this unsung navy pilot had succeeded in overcoming the odds to become one of the "Select Few".

Leroy Gordon Cooper, pilot and astronaut: born Shawnee, Oklahoma 6 March 1927; married 1947 Trudy B. Olson (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1972 Suzan Taylor (two daughters); died Ventura, California 4 October 2004.

Gordon Cooper, known as "Gordo" to his friends, was one of the one of the most unlikely heroes of the space race between the United States and Soviet Union. Many of his Mercury astronaut colleagues found it difficult to understand how this unsung navy pilot had succeeded in overcoming the odds to become one of the "Select Few".

Unlike veterans such as John Glenn and Gus Grissom, Cooper had no combat experience. Compared with the other members of the Mercury Seven, he had fewer flying hours under his belt and he was generally regarded as an engineer with test-pilot experience rather than a hotshot pilot ready to explore the Final Frontier.

Yet, from an initial list of more than 500 of the nation's best military pilots, Cooper grasped the opportunity for greatness by displaying a single-minded determination to succeed and a sang-froid that enabled him to breeze through the intensive medical and psychological tests that proved too much for many of his more experienced rivals.

In April 1959, Cooper became one of the most famous people on the planet when America's seven Mercury astronauts were presented to the press for the first time. As the youngest and least experienced of the newly created corps, he would almost certainly be the last in line for a mission, but Cooper was determined to bide his time and make the most of the opportunity when it arose. The greatest challenge he had to overcome was his hatred of receptions and social functions.

Finally, after four years of watching his colleagues grab the headlines, his turn came. Cooper was assigned to the sixth and final manned flight of the Mercury programme.

Early on the morning of 15 May 1963, he clambered feet-first into the tiny, claustrophobic capsule on top of a towering Atlas booster. All around the Cape Canaveral site, tension mounted as the countdown stuttered toward zero. Then, after several hours, the medics in mission control noticed that Cooper's bio-readings had noticeably altered. The astronaut, bored by the long wait and lack of activity, had fallen asleep.

Cooper's 22-orbit mission in Faith 7 proved to be much less restful. At first, everything went according to plan, and on the third orbit, he was able to release a small sphere with flashing lights as an observation test that could assist future rendezvous and docking missions. Visual experiments played a major role in the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission, and Cooper caused a sensation by claiming to be able to observe individual houses, railway tracks and roads with the naked eye.

On the 19th orbit, the spacecraft's automatic control system began to malfunction, resulting in a cascade effect which caused other electrical systems to fail, one by one. Cooper had no choice but to conduct the first manual re-entry into the atmosphere of the US manned programme.

"Things are beginning to stack up a little," commented the ice-cool commander. Following instructions radioed up from the ground, Cooper held the capsule in perfect alignment as he fired the retrorockets right on schedule. In an astonishing display of piloting expertise, he brought Faith 7 to a splashdown just one mile off target and only four miles from the recovery carrier.

After 34 hours and 20 minutes of flight, during which he had travelled more than half a million miles, the junior astronaut had become the US record-holder and the most experienced member of the entire team. Feted by the nation, he visited the White House, spoke before Congress and enjoyed one of the largest tickertape parades in the history of New York.

Years later, his exploits were remembered in Tom Wolfe's best-selling book The Right Stuff (1979), and the subsequent Hollywood movie of the same name. Thereafter, Cooper enjoyed thrilling his listeners by reciting the line spoken by actor Dennis Quaid, when asked who was the best pilot he ever saw. "You're looking at him," Cooper would say, flashing a broad grin.

Leroy Gordon Cooper Jnr was born in 1927 in Shawnee, Oklahoma. An only son, he learned to love flying at the age of five after his father, an Army colonel, took him up in a biplane. After attending schools in Shawnee and Murray, Kentucky, he turned down the possibility of a football scholarship to enlist in the Marines, but he was too late to see combat in the Second World War.

When the war ended, he completed three years at the University of Hawaii and received an Army commission before transferring to the Air Force. During four years of active duty with the 525th Fighter Bomber Squadron in Munich, Germany, he flew F-84 and F-86 fighters and managed to earn a few credits at the European Extension of the University of Maryland night school.

On his return to the US, he attended the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1956. Cooper then reported as a student to the Air Force Experimental Flight Test School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Upon graduating in 1957, he was assigned as an aeronautical engineer and test pilot in the Performance Engineering Branch of the Flight Test Division at Edwards.

When Nasa announced its intention to recruit the first astronauts, Cooper entered enthusiastically into the selection process. "I always had what I think is the natural desire of most pilots to want to go a little bit higher and faster," he wrote later:

I had every confidence when I returned to Edwards that I would make the team. I even told my boss that he ought to start looking for a replacement.

Cooper's confidence was not misplaced. He had overcome the odds to become, at the age of 32, the youngest member of the new astronaut corps. After the headline-grabbing success of his Mercury mission, he was assigned as commander of a two-man, long- duration mission in Gemini 5. The main purpose of the eight-day, 120-orbit flight was to investigate how humans would cope with prolonged exposure to zero gravity and to ensure that men flying to the Moon and back would be able to complete a complex series of tasks.

When Gemini 5 lifted off from Florida on 21 August 1965, Cooper became the first man to make a second orbital flight. Accompanied by the rookie Charles Conrad, the crew established a new space endurance record by travelling a distance of 3,312,993 miles in an elapsed time of 190 hours and 56 minutes. Despite problems with the spacecraft's new fuel cells, they were able to test the Gemini radar after releasing a small pod, and then conducted four orbital changes to rendezvous with an imaginary target.

By the time they splashed down in the Atlantic, the cabin was full of rubbish, but the mission had provided an important psychological boost by placing the US ahead of the Soviet Union for the first time in the total number of man-hours accumulated in space.

Over the next few years, Cooper served as back-up command pilot for Gemini 12 and as back-up commander for Apollo 10, putting him in line for a trip to the Moon on board Apollo 13. Instead, his crew was assigned as back-up for that mission by fellow Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. Despite his furious protests and an appeal to higher authority, the decision stood, with the result that Cooper decided it was time to resign from Nasa. For the rest of his life, he always believed that his Mercury colleagues had deprived him of the ultimate achievement, a walk on the Moon. Cooper also decided to retire from the military in 1970, unable to cope with the thought of a desk job.

Cooper set up his own consulting firm, specialising in technical projects ranging from airfields to land and hotel development. He was also involved as a director of several companies that produced and marketed modular homes and campers. For a while, he was vice-president for Research and Development/Epcot for the research and development subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions. He later became a partner in a high-tech consultant and aircraft design company, working on a saucer-shaped, vertical lift vehicle known as the Swift 2000.

Cooper loved active outdoor pursuits, and his hobbies included archaeology, racing, flying, skiing, boating, hunting and fishing. During his last year with Nasa, he took part in undersea treasure hunting off the coast of Mexico and helped to uncover some 3,000-year-old ruins built by a little-known civilisation called the Olmec.

Despite some ridicule from sceptics, Cooper pursued an active interest in UFO sightings. In 1978 he gave testimony to a UN hearing on the subject and he campaigned for many years against what he considered to be a cover-up by the US government. Although he always denied rumours that he or his astronaut colleagues had ever observed UFOs in space, Cooper did claim to have seen and chased metallic, saucer-shaped objects when he was flying with the US Air Force in Europe.

In his book Leap of Faith, published in 2000, Cooper also caused controversy by claiming that a handheld spy camera used on Gemini 5 accidentally captured some pictures of the top-secret Area 51 in Nevada - an area renowned for Ufo sightings. According to Cooper, the camera and its film were confiscated by the Pentagon, never to be seen again, and he was personally ordered by President Lyndon B. Johnson not to divulge the film's contents. However, researchers who located the "missing" film stated that the quality of the images was poor and that Gemini 5 never flew anywhere near Area 51.

Peter Bond

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