Astronaut Gordon Cooper, of original Mercury 7, is dead

AF test pilot was chosen for NASA program in '59, flew two space missions

October 05, 2004|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. - Gordon Cooper, one of the original "Mercury Seven" astronauts, died yesterday, NASA announced. He was 77.

Cooper flew the sixth and final flight of the Mercury program - in a spacecraft known as Faith 7 - in May 1963, becoming the first astronaut to sleep in space during more than 34 hours and 22 orbits of Earth. He later commanded Gemini V in 1965.

Cooper's death leaves only three living Mercury astronauts: John Glenn, Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra. The men, selected in the spring of 1959 as the inaugural class of astronauts, were instant celebrities, girding to win the space race against the Soviet Union.

NASA did not release a cause of death for Cooper, who lived in Ventura, Calif. He is survived by his wife, Susan, and two daughters.

Schirra remembers

Reached at his home last night, Schirra recalled a sincere, hardworking man.

"He was not the hot shot flyboy that Dennis Quaid played in The Right Stuff," Schirra said, referring to the 1983 movie based on Tom Wolfe's book about the Mercury astronauts.

Schirra said he and Cooper - like the rest of the Mercury group - forged a friendship that endured.

"It was that kind of relationship - much better than a brother," he said. "The bonding we had, the original seven, is just unsurpassed, unbelievable."

In a statement released by the agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Sean O'Keefe praised Cooper and extended condolences to his family.

"As one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, Gordon Cooper was one of the faces of America's fledgling space program," O'Keefe said.

"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."

Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr. was born in Shawnee, Okla., in 1927. After serving in the Marine Corps, he went to the University of Hawaii and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army.

Fighter pilot

From 1950 to 1954, he was an Air Force fighter pilot in Germany.

After completing a bachelor's degree at the Air Force Institute of Technology, Cooper went to test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He was a pilot there until he was selected as an astronaut.

The youngest of the Mercury group, Cooper completed a 1963 flight that was more than three times the length of any American mission before it.

In 1965, he and astronaut Charles Conrad Jr. flew an eight-day mission beset with problems - but it helped to prove that men could stay in space long enough to complete a lunar mission.

Retired in 1970

Cooper left NASA and retired from the Air Force in 1970. He worked in a number of industries, including as vice president for research and development for the Epcot theme park for a subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions.

Schirra said he last saw Cooper just a few weeks ago, at an autograph-signing event in Burbank, Calif., and enjoyed a warm reunion.

Yesterday, for Schirra, there was simply sadness.

"We're down to three now," he said.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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