The search for candidates narrowed to the ranks of practicing test pilots—meaning pilots from the air force, navy, and marines, along with a handful of civilians. The theory was that test pilots had the instincts and training required to handle a complex spacecraft traveling at high speeds and high altitudes. It made sense that the same men who were testing our country's hottest jets should be in the driver's seat when it came time to launch a manned space vehicle.

A thorough search of personnel records came up with the names of 508 test pilots who met the basic requirements. That list was reviewed further and whittled....

—Gordon Cooper, with Bruce Henderson, Leap of Faith: An Astronaut’s Journey into the Unknown.

Back when American boys sought out heroes the way they look for MP3 downloads today, the original seven Mercury Astronauts had, as author Tom Wolfe put it, the Right Stuff. Hand-picked by an American government anxious to best the Soviet Union in a race to space, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, Alan Shepard, Jr., Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Gordon Cooper had the jobs all we space-crazed kids wanted back in the late 1950’s.

In an irony right out of a storybook, Gordon “Gordo” Cooper died yesterday, October 4, 2004, on the same day that Burt Rutan’s privately-funded SpaceShipOne achieved sub-orbital flight for the second time in five days, thus capturing the ten million dollar Ansari X Prize and opening the door to a new era of non-governmental space flight. Colonel Cooper was seventy-seven years old and he died of natural causes at his home in Ventura, California, barely a hundred miles from the site of SpaceShipOne’s triumphant flight.

He was the youngest of the Mercury 7 astronauts and, as portrayed by Dennis Quaid in the film version of Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, apparently he was the cockiest. In real life, during a reunion of the surviving Mercury astronauts in 1995, when Cooper was asked who was the greatest fighter pilot he ever saw, he answered “You’re looking at him!”

Astronaut Walter Schirra had a different opinion of his life-long friend: “He’s much less emotional and much less flyboy stuff,” he said. “He was a nice, steady engineer. He was more of an engineer than a test pilot, actually.”

"Gordon Cooper's legacy is permanently woven into the fabric of the Kennedy Space Center as a Mercury Seven astronaut,'' said center director Jim Kennedy. "His achievements helped build the foundation of success for human space flight that NASA and KSC have benefited from for the past four decades.''

Cooper piloted Faith 7, the last flight of the Mercury program, on May 15, 1963, circling the earth twenty-two times in thirty-four hours and twenty minutes, more than all five of the previous Mercury flights combined. His mission was the first space flight to last more than twenty-four hours and he was the last astronaut to orbit the earth alone. He was the first man to take a nap in orbit—seven and a half hours, dreamlessly, he reported. He was also the first American to be televised from space.

Two years later he served as command pilot on an eight day mission with Charles Conrad, establishing a space endurance record by traveling 3,312,993 miles in 190 hours and 56 minutes in their tandem Gemini capsule. This flight proved that humans could survive weightlessness for the time it took to fly to the moon. This was also the flight that let the United States surpass the Soviet Union in man-hours in orbit, thus taking the lead in the so-called space race. He was also backup command pilot for Gemini 12 and backup commander for Apollo X.

"He truly portrayed the right stuff," Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, said in a statement on Monday. Mr. Cooper "helped gain the backing and enthusiasm of the American public, so critical for the spirit of exploration," Mr. O'Keefe said.

He was born Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr. on March 6, 1927, in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He said he first took the controls of an airplane when he was seven or eight, when his father, a U.S. Army colonel, took him up. As a youngster, he met two famous aviators, overnight visitors to the Cooper home—Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post.

After completing three years at the University of Hawaii he received an Army commission, joined the Marines during World War II, and later transferred to the Air Force in 1949. He earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1956 and went on to become a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. He was selected for the Mercury program in April, 1959, at the age of 32. During his career he logged more than 7,000 hours flying time, including 4,000 hours in jet aircraft and 222 hours in space. He flew all types of Commercial and General Aviation airplanes and helicopters.

Upon retirement from the military in 1970, Colonel Cooper was involved in building and distributing marine engines and fiberglass boats. He also tested and raced championship cars, and pioneered the use of jet engines on cars. He was part owner of a boat racing team and was a consultant to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler on automotive components. From January 1973 to 1975, he was Vice President for Research and Development/EPCOT for Walter E. Disney Enterprises, Inc., the research and development subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions.

In his book Leap of Faith: An Astronaut’s Journey into the Unknown, Colonel Cooper wrote of encounters he said he’d experienced with UFO’s. He made an excellent case for extraterrestrial intelligence, and went so far as to accuse the government of covering up the existence of UFO’s. It was perhaps this aspect of his belief system, he considered, along with his tendency to involve himself with “a lot of in-house politics,” that kept him from being chosen as a prime crew member for an Apollo mission to the moon.

Colonel Cooper’s death leaves three of the original Mercury 7 astronauts alive: John Glenn, the former senator from Ohio; M. Scott Carpenter; and Walter M. Schirra, Jr.. Virgil "Gus" Grissom was one of three astronauts killed in a fire inside an Apollo capsule in 1967 and Deke Slayton and Alan Shepard both died of natural causes.


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