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Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper dies

October 4, 2004

The "best pilot you ever saw" is no longer to be seen.

Gordon "Gordo" Cooper, 77, the last American to launch alone to orbit the Earth, died this morning at his home in Ventura, California, from cardiac arrest.

Cooper was selected by NASA in 1959 as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts. On May 15-16, 1963, he piloted his Faith 7 capsule on the sixth and final flight of Project Mercury. Cooper tested the one-seater craft to its limits on a 22-orbit, 34-hour flight. Electrical problems near the end of the mission meant he had to manually fire his retrorockets and steer the capsule through re-entry.

Problems also beset Cooper on his next flight, a record-setting eight-day trip aboard Gemini 5, flying with Charles "Pete" Conrad, in August 1965. There was trouble with fuel supplies, power systems and a computer-generated command that caused Gemini 5 to land 103 miles short of its target. Yet Cooper and Conrad demonstrated that astronauts could resolve problems and they stayed aloft the full duration.

"Gordo was one of the most straightforward people I have ever known. What you saw was what you got. Pride in doing a great job, whatever his assignment, was his hallmark. You could always depend on Gordo. It's hard to believe that he will no longer be with us in person. I know he'll be with us in spirit," said fellow Mercury astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn in a release issued by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF) today.

"We seven were bonded like brothers, maybe even closer if that's possible," reflected Walter "Wally" Schirra.

"Gordon backed me up on my Mercury flight which went very well. In turn, I backed him on his flight, which went equally as well. He now has joined Gemini crewmate, the late Pete Conrad, in orbit," said Schirra.

"This is truly the passing of a beloved member of a unique fraternity," spoke astronaut Scott Carpenter of Cooper's passing. "We'll all miss him."

"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," said Sean O'Keefe, NASA Adminstrator. "My thoughts and prayers are with Gordon's family during this difficult time."

Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr. (Colonel, USAF, Ret.), was born on March 6, 1927, in Shawnee, Oklahoma, to parents Leroy Gordon Cooper, Sr. (Colonel, USAF, Ret.) and Hattie Lee (Herd) Cooper. He attended primary and secondary schools in Shawnee, and Murray, Kentucky, where he graduated from high school in 1945.

The Army and Navy flying schools were not taking any candidates the year he graduated from high school so he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. World War II ended, however, before he could get into combat.

Cooper was assigned 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.

After his discharge, Cooper went to Hawaii to live with his parents. 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 and lived there for two more years while he continued his studies.

While at the university he received a commission in the U.S. Army ROTC. He transferred to the Air Force and was called to active duty for flight training on the main continent in 1949. He underwent pilot's training at Perrin Air Force base, Texas, and Williams Air Force Base, Arizona. In 1950, after he received his wings, he was assigned to the 86th Fighter Bomber Group at Landstuhl, West Germany, where he flew F-84 and F-8 jets for four years. He later became flight commander of the 525th Fighter Bomber Squadron.

When he returned to the U.S. in 1954 he attended the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, for two years. He graduated there with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering in August 1956, and was assigned to Edwards Air Force Base, California, where he attended the Experimental Flight Test School until 1957. He was then assigned to the Fighter Section of the Flight Test Engineering Division at Edwards as a project engineer and test pilot at the Air Force Flight Test Center. There he worked on the F-102A and the F-106B test programs.

While still at Edwards, Cooper read that the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis had been awarded a contract to build a space capsule. A few days after he read the announcement of Project Mercury, he was called to Washington, D.C. for a briefing where he learned what was needed of an astronaut.

During his two missions, Cooper logged 225 hours, 15 minutes and 3 seconds in space. He served as the backup commander for Gemini 12, and as the backup commander for Apollo 10. In July 1969, he was in line to be named commander of Apollo 13, but in a reshuffling of assignments, Cooper was replaced by Alan Shepard, who had recently been returned to flight status after a four-year hiatus due to an inner ear condition.

Cooper resigned from NASA and the Air Force, at the rank of Colonel, on July 31, 1970, to form Gordon Cooper and Associates, an aviation and aerospace consulting firm based in Hialeah, Florida.

He was a director of a number of other organizations, most specializing in energy, advanced electronics systems, efficient homes, boats and marine systems and equipment.

In 1975, he became vice president for research and development for Walter E. Disney Enterprises Inc. of Glendale, Calif., the research and development subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions.

In 1983, Cooper was portrayed by actor Dennis Quaid in the film adaptation of Tom Wolfe's novel, The Right Stuff. In the movie, he was attributed to telling the joke, "Who's the best pilot you ever saw? You're looking at him," which Cooper later adopted as his own.

In 1984, along with his fellow Mercury astronauts, Cooper co-founded the Mercury 7 Foundation - now the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation - to award scholarships to college students pursuing engineering and science degrees.

In 2000, Cooper published his memoirs, Leap of Faith: An Astronaut's Journey into the Unknown (HarperCollins) with co-author Bruce Henderson.

Throughout his life, Cooper pursued a wide range of activities, both professionally and as hobbies. A NASA biography lists his hobbies as treasure hunting, archaeology, racing, flying, skiing, boating, hunting and fishing. Among his numerous awards were the Air Force Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross with cluster, NASA's Exceptional Service Medal, the Collier Trophy and the Harmon Trophy.

Cooper is survived by his wife, Susan and four daughters Camala, Janita (both from his first marriage), Elizabeth and Colleen.

Family members have asked that donations in Cooper's honor be made to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

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