Fwd: Gordon Cooper, Pioneering Mercury Program Astronaut, Dead at 77
- Gordon Cooper, Pioneering Mercury Program Astronaut, Dead at 77
By Associated Press
posted: 04 October 2004
08:32 pm ET
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Gordon Cooper, the last astronaut to take flight
during NASA's pioneering Mercury program, has died. He was 77.
Cooper, known as "Gordo" to his friends and colleagues, died Monday at his
Ventura home of natural causes. He had been suffering from heart problems
and showed symptoms of heart failure over the weekend, former Mercury
astronaut Wally Schirra said.
Cooper was the youngest and perhaps cockiest member of the original seven
Mercury astronauts. He achieved many key firsts as he piloted Faith 7
capsule in May of 1963.
As he circled the globe 22 times in 34 hours and 20 minutes, Cooper became
the first astronaut in a space flight of more than 24 hours. He was also
the first astronaut to sleep in space, and he successfully carried out a
beacon experiment that made him the first man to launch a satellite in
"We were probably the most bonded seven men in the history of aviation and
space and mankind, and to lose another one is pretty tough for us,"
Schirra told Associated Press Radio.
As one of the nation's first astronauts, Cooper became a hero to a
generation of Americans in the early 1960s as the country tried to catch
the Soviet Union in the space race.
"He truly portrayed the right stuff, and he helped gain the backing and
enthusiasm of the American public, so critical for the spirit of
exploration," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said.
Cooper, who took a nap in the capsule while waiting for Faith 7 to launch,
was the last astronaut to orbit Earth alone.
A serious glitch materialized in Faith 7's final orbits when a
short-circuit left its automatic stabilization and control system without
electric power. With carbon dioxide levels rising in both Cooper's suit
and the cabin, he issued the classic understatement, "Things are beginning
to stack up a little." He then radioed that he would pursue a manual
Fellow Mercury program astronaut John Glenn, who was the first American to
orbit the Earth, recalled that Cooper's onboard clock also was not working
properly. Cooper relied on Glenn's voice for a manual countdown for the
timing of firing rockets that would ensure landing in the right spot.
"He followed my count and hit the button on 'zero.' It worked; he got
back," said Glenn, a former U.S. Senator.
Cooper became the first man to make a second orbital flight two years
later during the Gemini 5 mission, when he and Charles Conrad established
a space endurance record by traveling more than 3.3 million miles in 190
hours, 56 minutes.
The flight proved humans could survive in a weightless state for the
length of a trip to the moon and tested a new power source for future
flights -- fuel cells. It also let the United States take the lead in the
space race by surpassing the Soviet Union in man-hours in orbit.
Cooper's rambunctious attitude was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's book "The
Right Stuff" and the 1983 movie of the same name.
Cooper gave his signature line during a 1995 reunion of surviving Mercury
astronauts. When asked who was the greatest fighter pilot he ever saw,
Cooper enthusiastically answered, "You're looking at him!"
But Schirra said Cooper was not as rowdy as actor Dennis Quaid portrayed
him in the movie.
"He's much less emotional and much less flyboy stuff," Schirra said. "He
was a nice, steady engineer. He was more of an engineer than a test pilot,
The death of Cooper came the day that privately built SpaceShipOne broke
through the Earth's atmosphere for the second time in five days, capturing
a $10 million prize aimed at opening the final frontier to tourists.
Three of the original Mercury astronauts are still alive -- Scott
Carpenter, Glenn and Schirra.
Virgil "Gus" Grissom died in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire; Donald K. "Deke"
Slayton died of brain cancer in 1993; and Alan Shepard Jr., died of
leukemia in 1998.
Cooper, born March 6, 1927, in Shawnee, Okla., joined the Marines during
World War II and 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.
He then flew numerous flights as a test pilot in the Flight Test Division
at Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles. Cooper was selected as a
Mercury astronaut in April 1959.
In a May 1963 ceremony at the White House, President John F. Kennedy
presented Cooper with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.
Cooper also authored the 2000 book "Leap of Faith," in which he discussed
NASA's early days, his experiences on the Mercury and Gemini missions and
his belief in extraterrestrial intelligence. Cooper in the book said that
as an Air Force pilot in 1951 that he chased UFOs while based in Germany.
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