Gordon Cooper

Gordon Cooper

L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.
NASA Astronaut
Nationality American
Status Deceased
Born (1927-03-06)March 6, 1927
Shawnee, Oklahoma, U.S.
Died October 4, 2004(2004-10-04) (aged 77)
Ventura, California, U.S.
Other names
Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr.
Other occupation
Test pilot
University of Hawaii
University of Maryland
AFIT, B.S. 1956
Rank Colonel, USAF
Time in space
9d 09h 14m
Selection 1959 NASA Group 1
Missions Mercury-Atlas 9 (Faith 7), Gemini 5
Mission insignia
Retirement July 31, 1970

Leroy Gordon "Gordo" Cooper, Jr. (March 6, 1927 – October 4, 2004), (Col, USAF), better known as Gordon Cooper, was an American aerospace engineer, test pilot, United States Air Force pilot, and one of the seven original astronauts in Project Mercury, the first manned space program of the United States.

Cooper piloted the longest and final Mercury spaceflight in 1963. He was the first American to sleep in space during that 34-hour mission and was the last American to be launched alone to conduct an entirely solo orbital mission. In 1965, Cooper flew as Command Pilot of Gemini 5.


  • Biography 1
    • Early life and education 1.1
    • Military service 1.2
    • NASA career 1.3
      • Mercury Seven 1.3.1
        • "Spam in a can"
      • Project Gemini 1.3.2
      • Apollo program 1.3.3
      • Retirement from astronaut corps 1.3.4
    • Later years 1.4
      • Personal life 1.4.1
      • Death 1.4.2
  • UFO sightings 2
  • Memorial spaceflights 3
  • Organizations 4
  • Awards and honors 5
  • Cultural influence 6
  • Physical description 7
  • See also 8
  • References and notes 9
  • External links 10


Early life and education

Cooper was born on March 6, 1927, in Shawnee, Oklahoma, to parents Leroy Gordon Cooper, Sr. (Colonel, USAF, Ret.) and Hattie Lee (née Herd) Cooper. He was active in the Boy Scouts of America where he achieved its second highest rank, Life Scout.[1] Cooper attended Jefferson Elementary School and Shawnee High School in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and was involved in football and track. He moved to Murray, Kentucky, about two months before graduating with his class in 1945 when his father, Leroy Cooper, Sr., a World War I veteran, was called back into service. He graduated from Murray High School in 1945.

After he learned that the Army and Navy flying schools were not taking any candidates the year he graduated from high school, he decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. Cooper left for Parris Island as soon as he graduated. However, World War II had ended before he could get into combat. He was assigned then to the Naval Academy Preparatory School and was an alternate for an appointment to Annapolis, Maryland. The man who was the primary appointee made the grade so Cooper was reassigned in the Marines on guard duty in Washington, D.C. He was serving with the Presidential Honor Guard in Washington when he was released from duty along with other Marine reservists.

Following his discharge from the Marine Corps, he went to Hawaii to live with his parents. His father was assigned to Hickam Field at the time. He started attending the University of Hawaii, and there he met his first wife, the former Trudy B. Olson of Seattle, Washington. She was quite active in flying, the only Mercury wife to have a pilot's license. They were married on August 29, 1947 in Honolulu when Gordon was 20. They continued to live there for two more years while he continued his university studies.[2]

Military service

Cooper transferred his commission to the United States Air Force in 1949, was placed on active duty and received flight training at Perrin Air Force Base, Texas and Williams AFB, Arizona.

Cooper's first flight assignment came in 1950 at Landstuhl Air Base, West Germany, where he flew F-84 Thunderjets and F-86 Sabres for four years. He later became flight commander of the 525th Fighter Bomber Squadron. While in Germany, he also attended the European Extension of the University of Maryland. Returning to the United States in 1954, he studied for two years at the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio, and in 1956 completed his Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering. Cooper was then assigned to the USAF Experimental Flight Test School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and after graduation was posted to the Flight Test Engineering Division at Edwards, where he served as a test pilot and project manager testing the F-102A and F-106B.[2] He corrected several deficiencies in the F-106, saving the U.S. Air Force a great deal of money.[2]

Cooper logged more than 7,000 hours of flight time, with 4,000 hours in jet aircraft. He flew all types of commercial and general aviation airplanes and helicopters.

NASA career

Mercury Seven

Cooper in his Mercury spacesuit, the Navy Mark IV

While at Edwards, Cooper was intrigued to read an announcement saying that a contract had been awarded to McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis, Missouri, to build a space capsule. Shortly after this he was called to Washington, D.C., for a NASA briefing on Project Mercury and the part astronauts would play in it. Cooper went through the selection process with the other 109 pilots and was not surprised when he was accepted as the youngest of the first seven American astronauts.[3]

Each of the Mercury astronauts was assigned to a different portion of the project along with other special assignments. Cooper specialized in the Redstone rocket (and developed a personal survival knife, the Model 17 "Astro" from Randall Made Knives, for astronauts to carry). He also chaired the Emergency Egress Committee, responsible for working out emergency launch pad procedures for escape. Cooper served as capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for Alan Shepard's first sub-orbital spaceflight in Mercury-Redstone 3 (Freedom 7) and Scott Carpenter's flight on Mercury-Atlas 7 (Aurora 7). He was backup pilot for Wally Schirra in Mercury-Atlas 8 (Sigma 7).

Cooper was launched into space on May 15, 1963, aboard the Mercury-Atlas 9 (Faith 7) spacecraft, the last Mercury mission. He orbited the Earth 22 times and logged more time in space than all five previous Mercury astronauts combined—34 hours, 19 minutes and 49 seconds—traveling 546,167 miles (878,971 km) at 17,547 mph (28,239 km/h), pulling a maximum of 7.6 g (74.48 m/s²). Cooper achieved an altitude of 165.9 statute miles (267 km) at apogee. He was the first American astronaut to sleep not only in orbit but on the launch pad during a countdown.[3]

"Spam in a can"
Cooper in an SSTV broadcast from Faith 7

Like all Mercury flights, Faith 7 was designed for fully automatic control, a controversial engineering decision which in many ways reduced the role of an astronaut to that of a passenger, and prompted Chuck Yeager to describe Mercury astronauts as "Spam in a can".[4]

Toward the end of the Faith 7 flight there were mission-threatening technical problems. During the 19th orbit, the capsule had a power failure. Carbon dioxide levels began rising, and the cabin temperature jumped to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38°C). Cooper turned to his understanding of star patterns, took manual control of the tiny capsule and successfully estimated the correct pitch for re-entry into the atmosphere. Some precision was needed in the calculation, since if the capsule came in too steep, g-forces would be too large, and if its trajectory were too shallow, it would shoot out of the atmosphere again, back into space. Cooper drew lines on the capsule window to help him check his orientation before firing the re-entry rockets. "So I used my wrist watch for time," he later recalled, "my eyeballs out the window for attitude. Then I fired my retrorockets at the right time and landed right by the carrier."[5][6] Cooper's cool-headed performance and piloting skills led to a basic rethinking of design philosophy for later space missions.

Pete Conrad and Gordon Cooper on deck of recovery carrier USS Lake Champlain after Gemini 5 mission

Project Gemini

Two years later (August 21, 1965), Cooper flew as Command Pilot of Gemini 5 on an eight-day, 120-orbit mission with Pete Conrad. The two astronauts established a new space endurance record by traveling a distance of 3,312,993 miles (5,331,745 km) in 190 hours and 56 minutes, showing that astronauts could survive in space for the length of time necessary to go from the Earth to the Moon and back. Cooper was the first astronaut to make a second orbital flight and later served as backup Command Pilot for Gemini 12.

Apollo program

Cooper was selected as backup Commander for the May 1969 Apollo 10 mission, and hoped this placed him in position as Commander of Apollo 13, according to the usual crew rotation procedure established by the Flight Crew Operations Director, grounded fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton. However, by May 1969, when another grounded Mercury astronaut, Slayton's assistant Alan Shepard was returned to flight status, Slayton replaced Cooper with Shepard as Commander of this crew, which was assigned to Apollo 14 in order to give Shepard more time to train.[2][7] Loss of this command placed Cooper farther down the flight rotation, meaning he would not fly until one of the later flights, if ever.

Retirement from astronaut corps

Disappointed by the reduced chances of commanding a Moon landing flight, Cooper retired from NASA and the Air Force on July 31, 1970, as a Colonel, having flown 222 hours in space. In his book "Leap of Faith" (pp. 176–183), Cooper charged that Shepard and Slayton had taken unfair advantage of their control of Apollo flight crew assignments by giving him the "third-in-a-row" backup crew assignment, in order to promote their own chances of flying.

However, Cooper had developed a lax attitude towards training during the Gemini program; for the Gemini 5 mission, other astronauts had to coax him into the simulator. He also entered a twenty-four hour Daytona road race while training; Slayton felt this placed him in too much danger and cancelled his entry.[8]

Slayton wrote in his memoirs that he never intended to rotate Cooper to another mission, and assigned him to the Apollo 10 backup crew simply because of a lack of qualified Astronaut Office manpower at the time the assignment needed to be made. Cooper, Slayton noted, had a very small chance of receiving the Apollo 13 command if he did an outstanding job with the assignment, which he did not.[9]

Later years

Cooper received an Honorary D.Sc. from Oklahoma State University in 1967. His autobiography, Leap of Faith (ISBN 0-06-019416-2), co-authored by Bruce Henderson, recounted his experiences with the Air Force and NASA, along with his efforts to expose an alleged UFO conspiracy theory. Cooper was also a major contributor to the book In the Shadow of the Moon (published after his death), which offered Cooper's final published thoughts on his life and career.

After leaving NASA, Cooper served on several corporate boards and as technical consultant for more than a dozen companies in fields ranging from high performance boat design to energy, construction, and aircraft design. During the 1970s, he worked for The Walt Disney Company as a Vice President of research and development for Epcot.

Cooper's hobbies included treasure hunting, archeology, racing, flying, skiing, boating, hunting, and fishing.

Personal life

Cooper married his first wife, Trudy B. Olson (born Seattle, Washington,[10] on February 19, 1927, died March 8, 1994[11]), in 1947. She was a flight instructor where he was training. Together, they had two daughters: Camala Keoki, born 1948;[2] and Janita Lee, born 1950,[2] who died 2007.[12] The couple divorced in 1971.

Cooper married Suzan Taylor in 1972. Together, they had two daughters: Elizabeth Jo, born in 1979; and Colleen Taylor, born in 1980. The couple remained married until his death in 2004.[13]


Cooper developed Parkinson's disease and died at age 77 from heart failure at his home in Ventura, California, on October 4, 2004. His death occurred on the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch and the same day that SpaceShipOne made its second official qualifying flight. Cooper was the last American to have flown alone in space until Brian Binnie piloted SpaceShipOne to an altitude of more than 112 km on the day of Cooper's death.[14]

UFO sightings

I believe that these extra-terrestrial vehicles and their crews are visiting this planet from other planets. Most astronauts were reluctant to discuss UFOs.

Gordon Cooper, Leap of Faith

Cooper claimed to have seen his first UFO while flying over West Germany in 1951, although he denied reports he had seen a UFO during his Mercury flight.[15]

In 1957, when Cooper was 30 and a Captain, he was assigned to Fighter Section of the Experimental Flight Test Engineering Division at Edwards AFB in California. He acted as a test pilot and project manager. On May 3 of that year, he had a crew setting up an Askania Cinetheodolite precision landing system on a dry lake bed. This cinetheodolite system would take pictures at one frame per second as an aircraft landed. The crew consisted of James Bittick and Jack Gettys who began work at the site just before 0800, using both still and motion picture cameras. According to his accounts, later that morning they returned to report to Cooper that they saw a "strange-looking, saucer-like" aircraft that did not make a sound either on landing or take-off.

According to his accounts, Cooper realized that these men, who on a regular basis have seen experimental aircraft flying and landing around them as part of their job of filming those aircraft, were clearly worked up and unnerved. They explained how the saucer hovered over them, landed 50 yards away from them using three extended landing gears and then took off as they approached for a closer look. Being photographers with cameras in hand, they of course shot images with 35mm and 4×5 still cameras as well as motion picture film. There was a special Pentagon number to call to report incidents like this. He called and it immediately went up the chain of command until he was instructed by a general to have the film developed (but to make no prints of it) and send it right away in a locked courier pouch. As he had not been instructed to not look at the negatives before sending them, he did. He said the quality of the photography was excellent as would be expected from the experienced photographers who took them. What he saw was exactly what they had described to him. He did not see the movie film before everything was sent away. He expected that there would be a follow up investigation since an aircraft of unknown origin had landed in a highly classified military installation, but nothing was ever said of the incident again. He was never able to track down what happened to those photos. He assumed that they ended up going to the Air Force's official UFO investigation, Project Blue Book, which was based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

He held claim until his death that the U.S. government is indeed covering up information about UFOs. He gave the example of President Harry Truman who said on April 4, 1950, "I can assure you that flying saucers, given that they exist, are not constructed by any power on Earth." He also pointed out that there were hundreds of reports made by his fellow pilots, many coming from military jet pilots sent to respond to radar or visual sightings from the ground.[16] In his memoirs, Cooper wrote he had seen other unexplained aircraft several times during his career, and also said hundreds of similar reports had been made. He further claimed these sightings had been "swept under the rug" by the U.S. government.[5] Throughout his later life Cooper expressed repeatedly in interviews he had seen UFOs and described his recollections for the documentary Out of the Blue.[5]

Memorial spaceflights

On April 29, 2007, Cooper's ashes (along with those of Star Trek actor James Doohan and 206 others) were launched from New Mexico on a sub-orbital memorial flight by a privately owned UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL sounding rocket. Although the capsule carrying the ashes fell back toward Earth as planned, it was lost in mountainous landscape. The search was thwarted by bad weather but after a few weeks the capsule was found and the ashes it carried were returned to the families.[17][18] The ashes were then launched on the Explorers orbital mission (August 3, 2008) but were lost when the Falcon 1 rocket failed two minutes into the flight.[19]

On May 22, 2012, Cooper's ashes were among those of 308 people included on the SpaceX flight that was bound for the International Space Station. This flight, using the "Falcon" launch vehicle and the "Dragon" capsule, was unmanned.


Cooper was a member of several groups and societies including the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the American Astronautical Society, Scottish Rite and York Rite Masons, Shriners, the Rotary Club, Order of Daedalians, Confederate Air Force, Adventurers' Club of Los Angeles, and Boy Scouts of America.

Awards and honors

Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze star
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Air Force Master Astronaut badge
Legion of Merit Distinguished Flying Cross
with cluster
NASA Distinguished Service Medal
NASA Exceptional Service Medal American Campaign Medal World War II Victory Medal
Army of Occupation Medal
with GERMANY Clasp
National Defense Service Medal
with one star
Air Force Longevity Service Award
with four clusters

Cooper received many other awards including the Collier Trophy, the Harmon Trophy, the DeMolay Legion of Honor, the John F. Kennedy Trophy, the Iven C. Kincheloe Award, the Air Force Association Trophy, the John J. Montgomery Award, the General Thomas D. White Trophy, the University of Hawaii Regents Medal, the Columbus Medal, and the Silver Antelope Award. He was a Master Mason (member of Carbondale Lodge # 82 in Carbondale, Colorado), and was given the honorary 33rd Degree by the Scottish Rite Masonic body, see List of Notable Freemasons.

The Gordon Cooper Technology Center in Shawnee, Oklahoma is named after Cooper.

Cooper was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1981,[20] and into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 11, 1990.[21]

Cultural influence

Cooper's accomplishments (along with his widely noted and appealing personality) were depicted in the 1983 film The Right Stuff in which he was portrayed by actor Dennis Quaid. Cooper worked closely with the production company on this project and reportedly, every line uttered by Quaid is attributable to Cooper's recollection. Quaid met with Cooper before the casting call and rapidly learned his mannerisms. Quaid also had his hair cut and dyed to match how the former astronaut's hair looked during the 1950s and 1960s. Cooper was later depicted in the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, in which his character was played by Robert C. Treveiler. Cooper appeared as himself in an episode of the television series CHiPs and during the early 1980s made regular call in appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. The Thunderbirds character Gordon Tracy was named after him. In the 2015 ABC TV series The Astronaut Wives Club, he is portrayed by Bret Harrison.

Physical description

  • Weight: 155 lb (70 kg)
  • Height: 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m)
  • Hair: Brown
  • Eyes: Blue[22]

See also

References and notes

  1. ^ "Scouting and Space Exploration". scouting.org. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Gray, Tara. "L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.". 40th Anniversary of Mercury 7. NASA. Retrieved July 10, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Bond, Peter (18 November 2004). "Col Gordon Cooper". Independent (London). Retrieved 3 October 2010. 
  4. ^ Wolfe, Tom, The Right Stuff 1979 ISBN 978-0-312-42756-6
  5. ^ a b c space.com, Gordon Cooper Touts New Book Leap of Faith, 30 July 2000, retrieved 20 January 2008
  6. ^ Wagener, Leon, One Giant Leap, Forge Books, 2004 ISBN 978-0-312-87343-1
  7. ^ Shayler, David (2002). Apollo: The Lost and Forgotten Missions. p. 281.  
  8. ^  
  9. ^  
  10. ^ "Nashua Telegraph from Nashua, New Hampshire · Page 2". Newspapers.com. 
  11. ^ "Genealogy references sorted by name". sortedbyname.com. 
  12. ^ "Obituaries: Janita Lee 'Jan' Cooper". Trinity Standard. 2007. Retrieved June 24, 2015. 
  13. ^ Wald, Matthew L. (October 5, 2004). "Gordon Cooper, Astronaut, Is Dead at 77". New York Times. Retrieved July 10, 2015. 
  14. ^ "SpaceShipOne Wins $10 Million Ansari X Prize in Historic 2nd Trip to Space". Space.com. 
  15. ^ Martin, Robert Scott, Gordon Cooper: No Mercury UFO, space.com, 10 September 1999, retrieved 20 January 2008
  16. ^ SPACE.com - Gordon Cooper Touts New Book Leap of Faith at the Wayback Machine (archived July 27, 2010)
  17. ^ uk.reuters.com, Ashes of "Star Trek's" Scotty found after space ride, 18 May 2007, retrieved 20 January 2008
  18. ^ Sherriff, Lucy, Scotty: ashes located and heading home, 22 May 2007, retrieved 20 January 2008
  19. ^ "SpaceX Falcon I fails during first stage flight". nasaspaceflight.com. 
  20. ^ "International Space Hall of Fame :: New Mexico Museum of Space History :: Inductee Profile". nmspacemuseum.org. 
  21. ^ "L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. - Astronaut Scholarship Foundation". astronautscholarship.org. 
  22. ^ Gordon Cooper's physical description

External links

  • Cooper Comments
  • Cooper's official NASA short biography
  • About Gordon Cooper
  • Astronautix biography of L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.
  • Spacefacts biography of L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.
  • Cooper at Encyclopedia of Science
  • Cooper at Spaceacts
  • Remembering 'Gordo' – NASA memories of Gordon Cooper
  • Interview with Cooper about UFOs and aliens (with much added speculation)
  • Space.com article, Pioneering Astronaut Sees UFO Cover-up
  • Gordon Cooper at the Internet Movie Database
  • Gordon Cooper Technology Center
  • Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture - Cooper, Leroy Gordon
  • Cooper at International Space Hall of Fame
  • Gordon "Gordo" Cooper, Jr at Find a Grave