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L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.
by Tara Gray

Photo of L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.

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 1945.1 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. He left for Parris Island as soon as he graduated. World War II ended, however, 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. 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. After his discharge from the Marine Corps, he went to Hawaii to live with his parents. His father was assigned to Hickham 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 and lived there for two more years while he continued his studies at the University.2

While he was 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. While in Germany he attended the European extension of the University of Maryland night school for a year.3

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. When he graduated from the school he was 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.4 There he worked on the F-102A and the F-106B test programs. He corrected several deficiencies in the F-106, saving the Air Force a great deal of money.5

While at Edwards he read an announcement that the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis had been awarded a contract to build a space capsule. This really interested Cooper. He soon found out the Project Mercury was interested in him, too. A few days after he read the announcement about the new capsule, he was called to Washington, D.C. for a briefing. NASA engineers spent an entire morning giving the 110 invited military test pilots a technical rundown on Project mercury and what the astronauts' part in it would be. The pilots were asked later in the day to give their reactions to what they had seen and heard, and to indicate whether or not they were interested. Cooper replied that he was definitely sold on the program and that he very much wanted to become an astronaut.6

First, the candidates had to take several series of technical and psychological tests, followed by physical examinations at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The candidates then flew to Wright-Patterson for a round of psychological or stress tests. The candidates were isolated, vibrated, whirled, heated, frozen, fatigued and run to high altitudes. In the end, Cooper felt that he had done very well. In fact, he had every confidence when he returned to Edwards that he would make the team. He told his boss to start looking for a replacement and he alerted his family to be ready to move. He took two weeks' leave to get ready to pull up stakes and move to Langley, Virginia, home of the NASA Space Task Group and Project Mercury. Cooper felt very confident and intended to be ready. He was not surprised when the phone call came two days after he had returned from leave. Charles Donlan, associate director of Project Mercury, welcomed Cooper to the team and asked when he could leave for Langley. Cooper replied, "How about right now?"7

On April 9, 1959, NASA announced to the public their selections for the Project Mercury astronauts. Along with Cooper at the press conference in Washington, D.C. sat Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, John H. Glenn, Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, Walter M. Schirra, Jr. and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton. Once the selections and announcements had ended, the astronauts began their training program at Langley. This included a "little of everything" ranging from a graduate-level course in introductory space science to simulator training and scuba-diving. Training continued until the Langley Space Task Force was transferred to Houston, Texas.8 When each of the Mercury astronauts were assigned a different portion of the project and special assignments, to ensure pilot input, Cooper specialized in the Redstone rocket. The Redstone was already well-proven when it was first considered for use in Project Mercury. However, it had to be made compatible with the Mercury spacecraft and this took some close coordination and communication between several different agencies. Assigning an astronaut to help accomplish this paid off, for several reasons. To begin with, Cooper was a military man who had been assigned to a civilian agency, so he could understand the problems on both sides. As an engineer, he could talk the language of the other engineers. And, since he planned to ride the finished product himself, he could really become immersed in the problems.9

Like everyone else on the team, Cooper also had several development tasks in addition to his own regular astronaut training. One of these was the development of a personal survival knife which the astronauts wanted to carry in the capsule with them. They all knew from their experience as pilots that a knife is one of the most valuable tools for survival on both land and water, and they also knew that they would encounter a good deal of both of these elements during their flights. They would be orbiting over oceans and jungle and desert, and they wanted to be prepared for any emergency. Another task that Cooper was responsible for was to serve as chairman of an Emergency Egress Committee which was responsible for working out procedures for saving the astronaut in the event of an emergency on the pad.10 He served as capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for Mercury MA-6, John Glenn's first orbital flight in Friendship 7, and MA-7, Scott Carpenter's flight in Aurora 7. He also served as backup pilot for MA-8, Wally Schirra's mission in Sigma 7.11

Cooper's first flight began on May 15, 1963, when he was launched as the pilot of MA-9, the last Mercury mission. Cooper, in his Faith 7 capsule, orbited the Earth 22 times and logged more time in space than all five previous Mercury astronauts combined. His primary objectives were to evaluate the effects of a lengthier stay in space on man and to verify man as the primary spacecraft system. During the mission, he became the first American astronaut to sleep in orbit.12 His mission lasted 34 hours, 19 minutes and 49 seconds, during which he completed 22 orbits and traveled 546,167 miles at 17,547 miles per hour and pulled a maximum of 7.6G's. He achieved an altitude of 165.9 statute miles at apogee (highest point in orbit) and 100.3 statute miles at perigee (lowest point in orbit).13

Two years later, Cooper was launched as the commander of Gemini GT-5 with Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., as the pilot, making Cooper the first person to make a second orbital flight. The eight-day mission, which began on August 21, 1965, proved that astronauts could survive in space for the time it took spacecraft to go from the Earth to the moon and back. Cooper and Conrad also evaluated the performance of rendezvous guidance and navigation systems using a rendezvous evaluation pod. The mission was successful except for a rendezvous failure due to a fuel-cell heater problem. On August 29, the last day of the flight, Cooper and Conrad communicated by radio with Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter aboard SEALAB II, which was 205 feet underwater off the coast of La Jolla, California.14 The mission lasted 7 days, 22 hours, 55 minutes and 14 seconds, 120 orbits were completed at an altitude of 349.8 kilometers and the crew landed on August 29, 1965, recovered by the USS Champlain.15

During his two spaceflights, Cooper logged 225 hours, 15 minutes and 3 seconds. He served s the backup commander for Gemini GT-12, the last Gemini mission, and as the backup commander for Apollo 10. In July 1969, he was in line to be named commander of Apollo 13, a lunar landing mission scheduled for April 1970. In a reshuffling of assignments, Cooper was replaced on Apollo 13 by Alan Shepard, who had recently been returned to flight status after a four-year hiatus due to an inner ear condition. Shepard was later moved to the command position of Apollo 14 and the Apollo 13 command position was given to James A. Lovell.16

Following the conclusion of the Gemini program, Cooper was assigned to important tasks in the Apollo and Apollo Applications Program (which later evolved into the Skylab program) as assistant to Deke Slayton, then crew operations chief for Skylab. He resigned from NASA and the Air Force, at the rank of Colonel, on July 31, 1970, to become a Washington business executive.17 After leaving NASA he formed Gordon Cooper and Associates, Incorporated, an aviation and aerospace consulting firm based in Hialeah, Florida. From 1974 to 1980, he was vice president for research and development for Walter E. Disney Enterprises Incorporated, based in Glendale, California. Since leaving the space program, Cooper has been on the boards of directors of and a technical consultant to a number of companies in the aerospace, electronics and energy fields. Since 1980, he has been president of X=L Incorporated, a firm that develops alcohol-based aviation fuel.18

Cooper has brown hair and brown eyes. He stands 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 155 pounds.19 After divorcing his first wife, Cooper later remarried to the former Suzan Taylor on May 6, 1972. He has four daughters, Camala Keoki (Cooper) Thorpe, born on November 16, 1948, and Janita Lee (Cooper) Stone, born on March 15, 1950, both from his first marriage. From his second marriage he has Elizabeth Jo and Colleen Taylor.20

Cooper has earned numerous honors and awards including; an honorary Doctorate of Science from Oklahoma City University, in 1957; the Air Force Legion of Merit; the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster; the NASA Exceptional Service Medal; the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, on May 21, 1963; Air Force Command Pilot Astronaut Wings, on May 29, 1963; Air Force Command Missileman's Badge; National Aeronautic Association's Robert J. Collier Trophy, for 1962; Harmon International Trophy, for 1963; Scottish Rite 33 Degrees; York Rite Knight of the Purple Cross; DeMolay Legion of Honor; John F. Kennedy Trophy; Iven C. Kincheloe Award, for 1963; Air Force Association Trophy; Primus Trophy; John Montgomery Trophy; General Thomas D. White U.S. Air Force Space Trophy; Association of Aviation Writers Award; University of Hawaii Regents Medal; Columbus Medal; Silver Antelope; and the Sport Fishing Society of Spain Award.21 He is a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), American Astronautical Society (AAS), Blue Lodge Masons, York Rite Masons, Scottish Rite Masons, Shriners, Royal Order of Jesters, Sojourners, Rotary Club, Quiet Birdmen, Order of Daedalians, Confederate Air Force, Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of America.22

Cooper died on October 4, 2004 at his home in Ventura, California. He was 77 years old.

For additional information about Cooper, including his official NASA biography, visit:




Carpenter | Cooper | Glenn | Grissom | Schirra | Shepard | Slayton

1. Hawthorne, Douglas B. Men and Women of Space (San Diego, California: Univelt Incorporated, 1992), p. 160.
2. Carpenter, M. Scott, et al.We Seven (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 52.
3. Hawthorne, p. 161.
4. Carpenter, et al., pp. 5253.
5. Hawthorne, p. 161.
6. Carpenter, et al., pp. 5354.
7. Ibid., pp. 5455.
8. "John Glenn." John Glenn Biography, 1998. http://muskingum.edu/~publicr/history/glenn.html (July 8, 1998), p. 1. Hereafter referred to as John Glenn.
9. Carpenter, et.al., p. 86.
10. Ibid., pp. 8788.
11. Hawthorne, p. 161.
12. Ibid., pp. 161162.
13. Dumoulin, Jim. "MA-9 (26)." NASA Project Mercury Mission MA-9, 1997. http://www/ksc.nasa.gov/history/mercury/ma-9/ma-9.html (August 11, 1998), pp. 12.
14. Hawthorne, p. 162.
15. Dumoulin, Jim. "Gemini-V (5)." NASA Project Gemini-V, 1998. http://www.ksc.nasa.gov/history/gemini/gemini-v/gemini-v.html (August 4, 1998), pp. 12.
16. Hawthorne, p. 162.
17. "Cooper Leaving NASA." NASA Press Release, June 23, 1970, p. 1.
18. Hawthorne, p. 162.
19. Ibid., p. 161.
20. Ibid., p. 160.
21. Ibid., pp. 160161.
22. Ibid., p. 160.

Carpenter | Cooper | Glenn | Grissom | Schirra | Shepard | Slayton


Last updated: January 28, 2010