Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr. (1927-2004), was an American astronaut and engineer. He flew into space twice, on the last of the Mercury spacecraft in 1963, and then again on Gemini 5 in 1965. He retired from the astronaut corps into work as an engineering consultant, and died from heart failure in California in 2004.
- Early Life and Military Service -
Cooper was born in Oklahoma but moved to Murray, Kentucky, as a child. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1945, then attended university and switched to the U.S. Air Force. Along the way, he met his wife, Trudy, also a pilot (with a private license). A year after joining the air force, as the Korean War broke out, Cooper was deployed to Western Europe, flying F-84 Thunderjet and F-86 Sabre jet fighters and continuing his engineering studies in his time off.
In 1957, Cooper returned to the U.S. and trained as a test pilot, in which service he spent several thousand hours in the air on new aircraft like the F-102 Dagger jet interceptor. It was this background which, like others, made him attractive to NASA as they painstakingly recruited the first seven astronauts for the ambitious Project Mercury.
- Projects Mercury and Gemini -
In the early years, the space program was markedly less technically sophisticated and complex than today, and in addition to training as an astronaut Cooper also made contributions to the Redstone rocket which formed the core of the Mercury space program, as well as designing emergency escape procedures and handling communications for the first Mercury flight, Alan Shepard's Freedom 7.
Finally, Cooper's turn in space came in May 1963, aboard the last of the Mercury spacecraft, Faith 7 (technically designated Mercury-Atlas 9, signifying the use of an Atlas rather than a Redstone missile to carry the capsule into space). Faith 7 spent an unprecedented 34 hours in space, completing 22 orbits. The record-setting length of the flight meant Cooper also became the first American to sleep in space. Eventually he was able to bring the capsule down for a successful splashdown, though not before a potentially dangerous malfunction: a power failure which required Cooper to bring the capsule into re-entry position, and fire his rockets to brake and begin descent, under manual control.
The Mercury project alone could have been the highlight of Cooper's career. However, he also returned to space again August 1965, as the commander of Gemini 5. (The Gemini rockets, unlike the Mercury predecessors, carried two astronauts rather than one.) This time, Cooper and his fellow astronaut Peter Conrad circled the Earth 120 times over eight days. In addition to setting a second endurance record (Cooper's first had long since been broken by other crews), Gemini 5's lengthy period in space was taken as technical proof that humans could survive a space flight long enough to make the flight to the Moon, which NASA was already preparing to undertake as part of the Apollo project.
- Post-Astronaut Years -
Initially, it seemed that Cooper might have a chance to join the Apollo project as well. He commanded the backup crew for Apollo 10, and was briefly in line for appointment for the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, a job which ultimately went to Jim Lovell instead. In 1970, his chances at another space mission at an end, Cooper retired from NASA, at the same time retiring from his officer's commission in the Air Force. He went on to enjoy a successful second career in the private sector, consulting on engineering projects ranging from boat and aircraft design to Walt Disney.
His later years were marked by some degree of controversy as a result of several claims by Cooper himself that he had seen unidentified flying objects (UFOs), potentially of extraterrestrial origin, during his flying career, though not during any of his space flights. Specifically, Cooper claimed to have seen a UFO over West Germany during the 1950s, and again near Edwards Air Force Base the same decade. Cooper subsequently accused the U.S. government of deliberately suppressing evidence of unexplained UFOs.
In 2004, Cooper died of Parkinson's disease and heart failure in California. His ashes were placed on the private Explorers spacecraft, to be launched into orbit on a Falcon 1 rocket, in 2008, along with those of Star Trek actor James Doohan (who played engineer Montgomery Scott in the original series). Unfortunately, the rocket in question failed during launch and never made it into orbit.
- Sources and Further Reading -