Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Leroy Gordon Cooper

Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr., was one of the seven original astronauts in Project Mercury, the first manned-space effort by the United States. He flew the longest space flight of the project, was the first American to sleep in orbit, and the last American to fly alone in earth orbit thus far. Born in Oklahoma to a farming family, he attended public schools and was an active Boy Scout, achieving the second highest rank of Life Scout. He joined the Marine Corps in 1945, and then received an officer's commission to the U.S. Army after completing three years of study at the University of Hawaii. He met his wife while at university. Trudy Cooper was the only wife of a Mercury astronaut who held a private pilot's license.
In 1949, Cooper transferred his commission to the Air Force and received flight training. His first flight assignment came in 1950 in Germany, where he flew F-84 Thunderjets and F-86 Sabres. He continued his university studies at the University of Maryland European Extension. Four years later he returned to the US and studied two more years at the Air Force Institute of Technology. In 1957 he completed the BS in aerospace engineering. At that point, Cooper was assigned to the Experimental Flight Test School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He served as a test pilot and project manager testing the F-102A and F-106B. He logged more than 7,000 hours of flight time, and flew all types of commercial and general aviation airplanes and helicopters.

With his extensive educational and practical background, Cooper was a prime candidate for the Mercury program. He was summoned to Washington, D.C. for a NASA briefing on the project. Cooper went through the lengthy and stressful selection process with the other 109 candidates but expressed no surprise when he was accepted to the program. Each Mercury astronaut was assigned to a different part of the project. Cooper specialized in the Redstone rocket (and developed a personal survival knife for astronauts to carry). He served as chair on several committees as well. His first flight into space took place on May 15, 1963 aboard the Mercury-Atlas 9 spacecraft during the last Mercury mission. He orbited the earth 22 times and logged more time in space than the previous five Mercury astronauts combined, 34 hours, 19 minutes and 49 seconds. He was not only the first American astronaut to sleep in orbit, he also fell asleep on the launch pad during a countdown. His cool attitude prevailed towards the end of the flight, when the capsule had a power failure. Using his self-devised, clever manual skills he was able to re-orient the capsule for re-entry entirely on his own, resulting in NASA's rethinking of design for future capsules.

Cooper later flew as command pilot on the Gemini 2 and Gemini 12 flights. He was selected as a backup commander for Apollo 10 and was scheduled to fly to the moon as commander of Apollo 13. However, he had a falling out with NASA, and Alan Shepard was chosen instead. Cooper retired from NASA and the Air Force in 1970, with the rank of colonel. His post-NASA years were filled with serving on corporate boards and as technical consultant for more than a dozen companies. During the 1970s he worked for The Walt Disney Company as they developed the Epcot Center. After his divorce from Trudy, Cooper married Suzan Taylor in 1972. The couple had two daughters of their own and raised the two daughters from his first marriage. Later in life Cooper developed Parkinson's disease. He died at age 77 from heart failure in his California home.

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