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Gordon Cooper, the Astronaut

Gordon Cooper, the Astronaut

Gordon Cooper was born March 6, 1927 and died October 4, 2004. Gordon Cooper was an engineer and American astronaut. Gordon Cooper was one of the seven original astronauts in Project Mercury, the first manned space effort by the United States. He flew the longest spaceflight of the Mercury project, was the first American to sleep in orbit, and was the last American to launch alone into Earth orbit and conduct an entire solo orbital mission.

Gordon Cooper was born between Shawnee and Tecumseh Oklahoma and graduated from Shawnee High School. He served in the Marine Corps in 1945 and 1946, then received an Army commission after completing three years of coursework at the University of Hawaii. Gordon Cooper went through a selection process with the other 109 pilots and was accepted as one of the first seven American astronauts in the Mercury program.

Gordon Cooper was launched into space on May 15, 1963 aboard the Mercury-Atlas 9 (Faith 7) spacecraft, the last Mercury mission. He orbited the Earth 22 times and logged more time in space than all five previous Mercury astronauts combined – 34 hours, 19 minutes and 49 seconds, traveling 546,167 miles (878,971 km) at 17,547 mph (28,239 km/h), pulling a maximum of 7.6 g (74.48 m/s²). Cooper achieved an altitude of 165.9 statute miles (267 km) at apogee. He was the first American astronaut to sleep not only in orbit but on the launch pad during a countdown.

Towards the end of the Faith 7 flight there were mission-threatening technical problems. During the 19th orbit the capsule had a power failure, carbon dioxide levels began rising and the cabin temperature jumped to over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Cooper fell back on his understanding of star patterns, took manual control of the tiny capsule and successfully estimated the correct pitch for re-entry into the atmosphere. Some precision was needed in the calculation since if the capsule came in too deep g-forces would be too large and if its trajectory was too shallow it would absorb too much heat and burn up. Cooper drew lines on the capsule window to help him check his orientation before firing the re-entry rockets. "So I used my wrist watch for time," he later recalled, "my eyeballs out the window for altitude. Then I fired my retrorockets at the right time and landed right by the carrier." Cooper's cool-headed performance and piloting skills led to a basic rethinking of design philosophy for later space missions.

Two years later (August 21, 1965) Cooper flew as command pilot of Gemini 5 on an eight-day, 120-orbit mission with Pete Conrad. The two astronauts established a new space endurance record by traveling a distance of 3,312,993 miles (5,331,745 km) in 190 hours and 56 minutes, showing astronauts could survive in space for the length of time necessary to go from the Earth to the Moon and back. Cooper was the first astronaut to make a second orbital flight and later served as backup command pilot for Gemini 12.

Gordon Cooper was selected as backup commander for Apollo 10 and hoped for an assignment as commander of Apollo 13. However, Alan Shepard was chosen instead (Shepard's crew was later moved onto Apollo 14 and the Apollo 13 command went to Jim Lovell). Having flown 222 hours in space, Cooper retired from NASA and the Air Force on July 31, 1970 as a colonel.


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