Gordon Cooper

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Gordon Cooper
Gordon Cooper 2.jpg
NASA Astronaut
NationalityUnited States
BornLeroy Gordon Cooper Jr.
(1927-03-06)March 6, 1927
Shawnee, Oklahoma, U.S.
DiedOctober 4, 2004(2004-10-04) (aged 77)
Ventura, California, U.S.
Other occupation
Test pilot
University of Hawaii
University of Maryland
AFIT, B.S. 1956
RankUS-O6 insignia.svg Colonel, USAF
Time in space
9d 09h 14m
Selection1959 NASA Group 1
MissionsMercury-Atlas 9
Gemini 5
Mission insignia
Faith 7 insignia.gif Gemini5insignia.png
RetirementJuly 31, 1970
AwardsLegion of Merit
Distinguished Flying Cross (2)
NASA Distinguished Service Medal
NASA Exceptional Service Medal

Leroy Gordon "Gordo" Cooper Jr. (March 6, 1927 – October 4, 2004) was an American aerospace engineer, test pilot, United States Air Force pilot, and the youngest 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, Mercury-Atlas 9, in 1963. He was the first American to sleep in space during that 34-hour mission and the last American to be launched alone to conduct an entirely solo orbital mission. In 1965, Cooper flew as Command Pilot of Gemini 5.

Early life and education[edit]

Leroy Gordon "Gordo" Cooper Jr. was born on March 6, 1927, Tecumseh, Oklahoma,[1] the only child of Leroy Gordon Cooper Sr. and Hattie Lee (née Herd) Cooper.[2] His mother was a school teacher. His father had enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War I, and served on the presidential yacht USS Mayflower. After the war he joined the Oklahoma National Guard, flying a Curtiss JN-4 biplane, although he never had formal military pilot training. He graduated from college and law school, and became a district judge. During World War II he was called to active duty, and served in the Pacific in the Judge Advocate General's Corps.[3] This time he remained in the military. He transferred to United States Air Force (USAF) after it was formed in 1947, and was stationed at Hickham Air Force Base, Hawaii. He retired from the USAF with the rank of colonel in 1957.[4]

Cooper attended Jefferson Elementary School and Shawnee High School in Shawnee, Oklahoma,[4] and was involved in American football and track. During his senior high school year, his American football team played in the state championship, with Cooper at halfback.[5] He was active in the Boy Scouts of America where he achieved its second highest rank, Life Scout.[6]

Cooper's parents owned a Command-Aire biplane, and he learned to fly at a young age,[7] soloing unofficially when he was 12 years old. At the age of 16, he earned his pilot's licence in a Piper J-3 Cub.[4] 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 June 1945.[2]

After Cooper learned that the United States Army and Navy flying schools were not taking any more candidates the year he graduated from high school, he decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps.[5] He left for Parris Island as soon as he graduated from high school,[2] but World War II ended before he saw active service. He was then assigned to the Naval Academy Preparatory School as an alternate for an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, but the man who was the primary appointee made the grade so Cooper was reassigned in the Marines to guard duty in Washington, D.C. He was serving with the Presidential Honor Guard in Washington when he was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1946.[5]

Cooper went to Hawaii to live with his parents. He started attending the University of Hawaii, and bought his own J-3 Cub. 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 both were 20 years old. They continued to live there for two more years while he continued his university studies. They had two children, both daughters, Camala Keoki and Janita Lee.[2][8][4]

Military service[edit]

USAF Experimental Flight Test School Class 56D. Front row: Captains Gordon Cooper, James Wood, Jack Mayo and Gus Grissom.

Cooper was active in the ROTC at college.[8] This led to his being commissioned as a second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in June 1949. He was able to transfer his commission to the United States Air Force in September 1949.[9] He was placed on active duty, and received flight training at Perrin Air Force Base, Texas and Williams Air Force Base, Arizona,[4] flying a North American T-6 Texan.[8]

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 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 (AFIT) in Ohio, and completed his Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering there on August 28, 1956.[4][10]

While at AFIT, Cooper met Gus Grissom, a fellow USAF officer, and the two became good friends. They were nearly killed in a takeoff from Lowry Field on June 23, 1956, when the Lockheed T-33 Cooper was piloting suddenly lost power. Cooper aborted the takeoff, but the landing gear collapsed and the aircraft skidded erratically for 2,000 feet (610 m) before crashing at the end of the runway and bursting into flames. Cooper and Grissom escaped unscathed, although the aircraft was a total loss.[10]

Cooper attended the USAF Experimental Flight Test School (Class 56D) at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Grissom was a fellow member of this class of 15.[10] After graduation Cooper 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. He corrected several deficiencies in the F-106, saving the U.S. Air Force a great deal of money.[2] He also flew the T-28, T-37, F-86, F-100 and F-104.[11] By the time he left Edwards, he had logged more than 2,000 hours of flight time, of which 1,600 hours was in jet aircraft.[10]

NASA career[edit]

Project Mercury[edit]

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.[12] Others were though; Slayton later recalled that "When I heard Gordo's name, my first reaction was, something's wrong. Gordo was an engineer at Edwards. As far as I was concerned, he wasn't even a test pilot."[13]

During the selection interviews, Cooper had been asked about his domestic relationship, and had lied, saying that he an Trudy had a good, stable marriage. In fact, she had left him four months before in the wake of a lengthy affair he had with a married woman, and was living with their daughters in San Diego while he occupied a bachelor's quarters at Edwards. Aware that NASA wanted a squeaky-clean image for its astronauts, and that his story would not stand up to scrutiny, he drove down to San Diego to see Trudy at the first opportunity. Lured by the prospect of a great adventure for herself and her daughters, she agreed to go along with the charade and pretend that they were a happily married couple.[14]

The identities of the Mercury Seven were announced at a press conference at Dolley Madison House in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 1959:[15] Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.[16] The magnitude of the challenge ahead of them was made clear a few weeks later, on the night of May 18, 1959, when the seven astronauts gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch their first rocket launch, of an SM-65D Atlas, which was similar to the one that was to carry them into orbit. A few minutes after liftoff, it spectacularly exploded, lighting up the night sky. The astronauts were stunned. Shepard turned to Glenn and said: "Well, I'm glad they got that out of the way."[17]

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, which would be used for the first, sub-orbital spaceflights.[18] He also chaired the Emergency Egress Committee, responsible for working out emergency launch pad escape procedures,[19] and engaged Bo Randall to develop a personal survival knife for astronauts to carry.[20]

The astronauts still drew their salaries as military officers, and an important component of that was flight pay. In Cooper's case, this amounted to $145 a month (equivalent to $1,246 in 2018). To achieve this, Grissom and Slayton would go out on the weekend to Langley Air Force Base, and attempt to put in the required four hours, competing for aircraft with no less eager but senior deskbound colonels and generals. But the T-33 aircraft at Langley were too tame for Cooper's taste, so he travelled all the way to McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Kentucky, where a friend would let him fly the higher-performance F-104B jets. This came up when Cooper had lunch with William Hines, a reporter for The Washington Star, and was duly reported in the paper. Cooper then discussed the issue with Congressman James G. Fulton. The matter was then taken up by the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. Within weeks the astronauts had F-102s for their use, something that Cooper considered a "hot plane", but which could still take off from and land at short civilian airfields; but it did not make Cooper popular with senior NASA management.[21][22]

After General Motors executive Ed Cole presented Shepard with a brand-new Chevrolet Corvette, Jim Rathmann, a racing car driver who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1960, and was a Chevrolet dealer in Melbourne, Florida, convinced Cole to turn this into an ongoing marketing campaign. Henceforth, astronauts would be able to lease brand-new Corvettes for a dollar a year. All the Mercury Seven but Glenn soon took up the offer. Cooper, Grissom and Shepard were soon racing their Corvettes around Cape Canaveral, with the police turning a blind eye to their exploits. From a marketing perspective, it was very successful, with the highly-priced Corvette establishing itself as a desirable brand. Cooper held licences with the Sports Car Club of America (SCAA) and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). He also enjoyed racing speedboats.[23]

Cooper served as capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for NASA's first sub-orbital spaceflight , by Alan Shepard in Mercury-Redstone 3,[24] and Scott Carpenter's orbital flight on Mercury-Atlas 7,[25] and was backup pilot for Wally Schirra in Mercury-Atlas 8.[4]

Mercury-Atlas 9[edit]

Finally, it was Cooper's turn. He was designated for next the next mission, Mercury-Atlas 9 (MA-9). Apart from the grounded Slayton, he was the only one of the Mercury Seven who had not yet flown in space. NASA Headquarters (HQ) was unenthusiastic about Cooper; officials there considered the complaints about flight pay and other incidents as evidence of a disturbing lack of judgment.[26] His laid-back attitude and Oklahoma accent didn't help.[27] Slayton later recalled: "Cooper was a capable pilot and could do the job, so I recommended him. There was some grumbling out of HQ so I said: 'Either we fly him on MA-9, or we send him back to the Air Force now. It isn't fair to keep this guy hanging around if we're not gonna fly him.'"[28] NASA management did not want to do that to one of its astronaut heroes, so Cooper's selection was publicly announced on November 14, 1962, with Shepard designated as his backup.[28]

Project Mercury had begun with a vision of ultimately flying an 18-orbit, 27-hour mission, known as the manned one-day mission (MODM).[29] On November 9, senior staff at the Manned Spacecraft Center decided to fly a 22-orbit mission as MA-9. Project Mercury still remained years behind the Soviet Union's space program, which had already flown a 64-orbit mission in Vostok 3. When Atlas 130-D, the booster designated for MA-9, first emerged from the factory in San Diego on January 30, 1963, it failed to pass inspection and was returned to the factory.[30] For Schirra's MA-8 mission, 20 modifications had been made to the mercury spacecraft; for Cooper's MA-9, 183 changes were made.[30][31] Cooper decided to name his spacecraft, Mercury Spacecraft No. 20, Faith 7. NASA officials were not pleased. They could see the newspaper headlines if the spacecraft were lost at sea: "NASA loses Faith".[32]

Cooper was nearly replaced by Shepard after an argument with NASA Deputy Administrator Walter C. Williams over last-minute changes to his pressure suit to insert a new medical probe.[33] This was followed by Cooper buzzing Hangar S at Cape Canaveral in an F-102 and lighting the afterburner.[33] Williams told Slayton he was prepared to replace Cooper with Shepard. The two agreed to let Cooper sweat.[34] Slayton told Cooper that President John F. Kennedy had intervened to prevent his removal.[33]

Cooper was launched into space on May 15, 1963, aboard the Faith 7 spacecraft, for what turned out to be the last of the Project Mercury missions. Because MA-9 would orbit over nearly every part of the world from 33 degrees north to 33 degrees south,[35] a total of 28 ships, 171 aircraft, and 18,000 servicemen were assigned to support the mission.[35] 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 miles per hour (28,239 km/h), pulling a maximum of 7.6 standard gravities (75 m/s2). Cooper achieved an altitude of 165.9 miles (267.0 km) at apogee. He was the first American astronaut to sleep not only in orbit but on the launch pad during a countdown.[12]

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, both in his suit and in the cabin, and the cabin temperature climbed to over 130 °F (54 °C). The clock and then the gyroscopes failed. Fortunately, the radio, which was connected directly to the battery, remained working, allowing Cooper to communicate with the mission controllers.[36] Like all Mercury flights, MA-9 was designed for fully automatic control, a controversial engineering decision which reduced the role of an astronaut to that of a passenger, and prompted Chuck Yeager to describe Mercury astronauts as "Spam in a can".[37] "This flight would put an end to all that nonsense", Cooper later wrote, "My electronics were shot and a pilot had the stick."[38]

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.[39] Precision was needed in the calculation; small errors in timing or orientation produce large errors in the landing point. 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."[40]

Faith 7 splashed down just 4 miles (6.4 km) ahead of the recovery ship, the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge. Faith 7 was a hoisted on board by a helicopter with Cooper still inside. Once on deck he used the explosive bolts to blow open the hatch. Postflight inspections and analyses studied the causes and nature of the electrical problems that had plagued the final hours of the flight, but no fault was found with the performance of the pilot.[41]

Project Gemini[edit]

Cooper began the tradition of NASA mission insignia with this design for Gemini 5.

MA-9 was the last of the Project Mercury flights. Walt Williams and others wanted to follow up with a three-day Mercury-Atlas 10 (MA-10) mission, but NASA HQ had already announced that there would be no MA-10 if MA-9 was successful.[32] Shepard in particular was eager to fly the mission, for which he had been designated, and even had the name Freedom 7 II painted on the spacecraft, Mercury Spacecraft No. 15B.[42] He even attempted to enlist the support of President Kennedy.[43] An official decision that there would be no MA-10 was made by NASA Administrator James E. Webb on June 22, 1963.[41] Ironically, had the mission been approved, Shepard might not have flown it, as he was grounded in October 1963,[44] and MA-10 might well have been flown by Cooper, who was his backup.[42]

Project Mercury was followed by Project Gemini, which took its name from the fact that it carried two men instead of just one.[45] Slayton designated Cooper as commander of Gemini 5, an eight-day, 120-orbit mission.[44] Cooper's assignment was officially announced on February 8, 1965. Pete Conrad, one of the nine astronauts selected in 1962 was designated as his co-pilot, with two members of the nine, Neil Armstrong and Elliot See as their respective backups. On July 22, Cooper and Conrad went through a rehearsal of a double launch of Gemini atop a Titan II booster from Launch Complex 19 and an Atlas-Agena target vehicle from Launch Complex 14. At the end of the test, which was successful, the erector could not be raised, and the two astronauts had two be retrieved with a cherry picker, an escape device that Cooper had devised for Project Mercury and insisted be retained for Gemini.[46]

Cooper and Conrad wanted to name their spacecraft Lady Bird after Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady of the United States, but Webb turned down their request; he wanted to "depersonalize" the space program.[47] Cooper and Conrad then came up with the idea of a mission patch, similar to the organizational emblems worn by military units. The patch was intended to commemorate all the hundreds of people directly involved, not just the astronauts.[48] Cooper and Conrad chose an embroidered cloth patch sporting the names of the two crew members, a Conestoga wagon, and the slogan "8 Days or Bust" which referred to the expected mission duration.[49] Webb ultimately approved the design, but insisted on the removal of the slogan from the official version of the patch, feeling it placed too much emphasis on the mission length and not the experiments, and fearing the public might see the mission as a failure if it did not last the full duration. The patch was worn on the right breast of the astronauts' uniforms below their nameplates and opposite the NASA emblems worn on the left.[49][50]

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

The mission was pushed back from August 9 to 19 to give Cooper and Conrad more tome to train, and was then delayed for two days due to a storm. Gemini 5 was finally launched at 09:00 on August 21, 1965. The Titan II booster placed them in a 163 by 349 kilometers (101 by 217 mi) orbit. Cooper's biggest concern was the fuel cell. To make it last eight days, Cooper intended to operate it at a low pressure, but when it started to dip too low the Flight Controllers advised him to switch on the oxygen heater. It eventually stabilized at 49 newtons per square centimetre (71 psi)—lower than it had ever been operated at before. While MA-9 had become uncomfortably warm, Gemini 5 became very cold. There were also problems with the Orbital Attitude and Maneuvering System thrusters.[51]

The mission continued. They did not have an Agena target vehicle, but Cooper practiced orbital rendezvous, bring his craft to a predetermined location in space. This raised confidence for achieving rendezvous with an actual spacecraft on subsequent missions, and ultimately in lunar orbit. Cooper and Conrad were able to carry out all but one of the scheduled experiments, most of which were related to orbital photography. In the end, what cut the mission short was not problems with the spacecraft, but Hurricane Betsy in the planned recovery area. A new target was designated to bring Gemini 5 down before the storm hit. Cooper fired the retrorockets on the 120th orbit. Spashdown was 130 kilometers (81 mi) short of the recovery area. A computer error had set the Earth's rotation at 360 degrees per day whereas it is actually 360.98. The difference was significant in a spacecraft, and the error would have been larger had Cooper not recognized the problem and attempted to compensate. Helicopters plucked them from the sea and to them to the recovery ship, the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain.[52]

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—just short of eight days—showing that astronauts could survive in space for the length of time necessary to go from the Earth to the Moon and back. Cooper became the first astronaut to make a second orbital flight.[53]

Cooper served as backup Command Pilot for Gemini 12, the last of the Gemini missions, with Gene Cernan as his pilot.[54]

Project Apollo[edit]

Apollo 10 backup crew (left to right) Cooper, Edgar Mitchell, and Donn Eisele during water egress training in April 1969.

In November 1964, Cooper entered the $28,000 Salton City 500-mile boat race with racehorse owner Ogden Phipps and racing car driver Chuck Daigh.[55] They were in fourth place when a cracked motor forced them to withdraw. The next year Cooper and Grissom had an entry in the race, but were disqualified after failing to make a mandatory meeting. Cooper competed the Southwest Championship Drag Boat races at La Porte, Texas, later in 1965,[56] and in the 1967 Orange Bowl Regatta with fire fighter Red Adair.[57] In 1968, he entered the 24 Hours of Daytona with Charles Buckley, the NASA chief of security at the Kennedy Space Center. The night before the race, NASA management ordered him to withdraw due to the dangers involved.[58] Cooper upset NASA management by qupping to the press that "NASA wants astronauts to be tiddlywinks players."[58]

Cooper was selected as backup Commander for the May 1969 Apollo 10 mission. This placed him in line for the position of Commander of Apollo 13, according to the usual crew rotation procedure established by the Director of Flight Crew Operations, grounded Mercury 7 astronaut Deke Slayton. However, when Shepard, who had served as Chief of the Astronaut Office after being grounded in 1963, was returned to flight status in May 1969, Slayton replaced Cooper with Shepard as Commander of this crew, which was subsequently reassigned to Apollo 14 in order to give Shepard more time to train.[2][59] Loss of this command placed Cooper farther down the flight rotation, meaning he would not fly until one of the later flights, if ever.[60]

Slayton alleged that 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.[61] He later asserted 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 astronauts with command experience at the time. 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.[62] Dismayed by his stalled career, Cooper retired from NASA and the Air Force on July 31, 1970, with the rank of colonel, having flown 222 hours in space.[2] Soon after he divorced Trudy.[63]

Later life[edit]

Cooper received an Honorary D.Sc. from Oklahoma State University in 1967.[53] His autobiography, Leap of Faith, 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.[64] In his review of the book, space historian Robert Pearlman wrote: "While no one can argue with someone's experiences, in the case Cooper's own sightings, I found some difficultly understanding how someone so connected with ground breaking technology and science could easily embrace ideas such as extraterrestrial visits with little more than anecdotal evidence."[65] Cooper was also a major contributor to the book In the Shadow of the Moon (published after his death), which offered his final published thoughts on his life and career.[66]

Cooper at an induction ceremony of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2004. Astronats John Young and Gene Cernan stand behind him.

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.[53] Between 1962 to 1967, he was president of Performance Unlimited, Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of racing and marine engines, and fiberglass boats. In addition, he was also president of GCR, which designed, tested and raced championship cars, conducted tire tests for race cars and worked on installation of turbine engine on cars.Among the companies he served in the board of Teletest on the design and installaton of advanced telemetry systems, Doubloon, which designed and built treasure hunting equipment and Cosmos, on archeology exploration projects.[53]

Cooper was a part owner and race project manager of the Profile Race Team from 1968 to 1970, designing and racing high performance boats. Between 1968 and 1974 he served as a technical consultant Republic Corp, consultant for design and construction of various automotive production items for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler Motor Companies, and technical consultant for developing technical products and public relations in land development projects for Canaveral International, Inc. Cooper also served on the board of directors for APECO, Campcom LowCom, and Crafttech.[53]

Establishing his own consulting firm, Cooper was President of the consulting firm Gordon Cooper & Associates, Inc., specializing in technical projects ranging from airline and aerospace fields to land and hotel development.[53] From 1973 to 1975, he worked for The Walt Disney Company as vice president of Research and Development for Epcot.[53] In 1989, he became CEO of Galaxy Group Inc, a company which designs and improves small airplanes.[67]

Cooper's hobbies included treasure hunting, archaeology, racing, flying, skiing, boating, hunting, and fishing.[53] He married Suzan Taylor in 1972. They had two daughters: Colleen Taylor, born in 1979; and Elizabeth Jo, born in 1980. They remained married until his death in 2004.[68]


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.[68]

A portion of Cooper's ashes (along with those of Star Trek actor James Doohan and 206 others) was launched from New Mexico on April 29, 2007, 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 obstructed by bad weather, but after a few weeks the capsule was found, and the ashes it carried were returned to the families.[69][70] The ashes were then launched on the Explorers orbital mission on August 3, 2008, but were lost when the Falcon 1 rocket failed two minutes into the flight.[71]

On May 22, 2012, another portion of Cooper's ashes was among those of 308 people included on the SpaceX COTS Demo Flight 2 that was bound for the International Space Station.[72] This flight, using the Falcon launch vehicle and the Dragon capsule, was unmanned. The second stage and the burial canister remained in the initial orbit Dragon C2+ was inserted into, and burned up in the Earth's atmosphere a month later.[73]

UFO sightings[edit]

Cooper claimed to have seen his first UFO while flying over West Germany in 1951,[74] although he denied reports he had seen a UFO during his Mercury flight.[75]

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 08:00, 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.[76]

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. They took photographs and film. There was a special Pentagon number to call to report such incidents: he called and soon was reported 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.[77]

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 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.[77]

Cooper claimed until his death that the U.S. government was indeed covering up information about UFOs. He 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.[40] 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.[40] In 1978 he also testified before the UN on the topic.[12] Throughout his later life Cooper expressed repeatedly in interviews he had seen UFOs and described his recollections for the documentary Out of the Blue.[40]


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 Royal Order of Jesters, the Rotary Club, Order of Daedalians, Confederate Air Force, Adventurers' Club of Los Angeles, and Boy Scouts of America.[53]

Awards and honors[edit]

Cooper at a parade given in his honor

Cooper received many other awards including the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the Collier Trophy,[78] the Harmon Trophy, the DeMolay Legion of Honor, the John F. Kennedy Trophy,[53] the Iven C. Kincheloe Award,[79] 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.[53] 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.[80] He was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1981,[67] and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 11, 1990.[81]

Cultural influence[edit]

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.[82]

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 chat shows hosted by David Letterman, Merv Griffen and Michael Douglas. 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. That same year, he was portrayed by Colin Hanks in the Season 3 episode "Oklahoma" of Drunk History. Writer Laura Steinel retells the story of his Mercury-Atlas 9 flight.[82]

While he was in space, Cooper recorded dark spots he noticed in the waters of the Caribbean. He believed these anomalies may be the locations of shipwrecks. The 2017 Discovery Channel docu-series Cooper's Treasure follows Cooper's friend Darrell Miklos as he searches through Cooper's files to discover the location of the suspected shipwrecks.[83]


  1. ^ Burgess 2011, p. 336.
  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. ^ Cooper & Henderson 2000, pp. 93–94.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Burgess 2011, p. 337.
  5. ^ a b c Cooper & Henderson 2000, p. 102.
  6. ^ "Scouting and Space Exploration". Boy Scouts of America. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  7. ^ Cooper & Henderson 2000, pp. 94–95.
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