Gordon Cooper’s “Leap of Faith”

One of the original Mercury astronauts writes about his experiences

by Michelle Evans, November 2000


Gordon Cooper was the last of the Mercury astronauts; one of the original seven chosen to trailblaze America into the manned space age. Gordo flew his spacecraft, Faith 7, into orbit on May 15, 1963. His job on this flight was to wring every last drop of energy out of his Mercury capsule and stay aloft for over 34 hours. This was nearly four times the amount of time any U.S. astronaut had spent in orbit up to that point.


Major Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr. was a hot shot pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He had flown missions in Germany before joining the elite airmen of the Air Force Test Pilot’s School at Edwards AFB. When he had the opportunity to volunteer for the next rung up the ladder (becoming an astronaut) he never hesitated to take that step. “It took me all of about 5 minutes to decide whether to volunteer or not,” he said.


This was the type of frank talk that members of OCSS and the general public got to hear from Gordo as he answered questions and told stories about his days as an astronaut. He is on a new trail now, making personal appearances on behalf of his autobiography, “Leap of Faith: An Astronaut’s Journey into the Unknown.”


OCSS was asked to aid the Space Frontier Foundation in putting on some small displays in conjunction with these recent events in Southern California. His first stop was at the Border’s Books in Torrance, followed the next day at Vromans Books in Pasadena. Both of these locations are very familiar to OCSS members who have participated in previous book signings at both locations (John Glenn, Gene Cernan, and Alan Bean).


Cooper now joins the list of these astronauts to publish their memoirs. The major difference in his case is that we don’t just get a look at his halcyon days flying spacecraft through the cosmos, then maybe some time as a corporate bigwig before retiring and kicking back. Gordo has a few other things to say that are not what most of us would expect. You see, he happens to firmly and unequivocally believe in UFOs and that they are extraterrestrial in origin.

But before we travel that slippery slope, let’s return to the more mundane points of his career.


“A few days ago,” Cooper said, “someone asked me why I wrote a book and I really couldn’t answer him. I’m not really sure why I did. But it seemed like I had so many notes around and everything, that I figured that maybe someday my kids would like to read about what was really going on in the space program. So I started putting all this together and it looked like I was going to have about 1200 pages!”


He culled it down to the 267 pages that we now have to tell his story.


Near the end of his first flight in Faith 7, things started to go bad very fast. I asked him about the complete power failure that he was experiencing.


“I had pretty good faith [in the capsule] but things were getting very squirrely the last couple of orbits. I was determined to make it to the nominal landing point.” A pretty cool statement when you consider that his capsule was literally dying around him.


Following his Mercury mission, Gordo flew with rookie Pete Conrad on Gemini 5. He described a rocket ride for his audience: “A launch is a pretty neat thing. It’s kind of like pulling up to the line in a really hot car. It really takes off. The one difference is that you never seem to run out of throttle in a spacecraft. You keep accelerating and accelerating and before long you begin to wonder if you didn’t happen to make a mistake!”


Their flight slogan on Gemini 5 was “8 Days or Bust.” The brass at NASA didn’t want to look like fools if they didn’t complete all eight days, so the crew was forced to sew material over the slogan on the patches, with orders not to remove it until and unless they were successful. They were, so they did.

I asked Gordo which flight he preferred, Mercury or Gemini?


“I enjoyed both of them thoroughly. I was used to flying by myself in single-seat fighters, so I enjoyed the flight by myself [Faith 7], but on longer flights it’s kind of handy to have another man along with you to help share the workload. Pete was a fun guy to be with.”


He was amazed about how space opened the door to communications between the superpowers.


“Right in the middle of the Cold War, here are two countries that are aiming their missiles at each other, can’t speak to one another, [and yet] both countries urged and encouraged their astronauts and cosmonauts to get together and exchange their thoughts, hopes, and dreams.”


Cooper also had an interesting revelation about the fate of America’s women astronauts:


“We had two women who were in training during Gemini. We figured we could get them up on the Skylab missions [73-74]. They were qualified pilots and they were in the Flight Operations Group. But then three women tried to pull a political deal on NASA to try and force NASA to name them as the first three women astronauts. NASA rebelled and said that not only would they not do that, but that they would cancel out the women who were already in training. It brought about a long delay on getting [American] women into space.”


So what about the other side of Gordon Cooper? When you first meet him nowadays, you have to admit that he looks a lot older than his 72 years. His southern drawl takes a little longer to form the words. He has dealt with Parkinson’s, but has it fairly well under control. When he answers questions, you quickly understand that his thought processes have not been affected by age. He is still sharp. So, why the belief in UFOs?


“I had an occasion in Germany to see these vehicles flying over. They flew just like our fighter formations and looked just like a fighter group, except that every once in a while one would slow down and then dart along at a fantastic rate of speed. And when we got as high as we could in our airplanes so we could see if we could see what they were, we couldn’t get very near them. But they were definitely metallic, saucer-shaped. Again [you must understand] that this was the height of the Cold War and we didn’t know what Russia had at that time in the way of airplanes.”


A spectator then asked: “But you don’t believe they came from this world?” To which Gordo replied, “No, I believe they came from some distant planet, especially after I learned what Russia did have.”


I have to admit that this is not the stuff I usually want to hear about when talking with a national hero. I would expect a lot more skepticism from an intellect of his prowess. But, on the other hand, he was there and saw what he saw; he certainly has a right to tell us his true feelings, as does anyone else in this country. He even makes some good points about government coverups, but you’ll still have to count me as a non-believer. I guarantee you an interesting read if you pick up his book.


Gordon Cooper still has his feet planted on terra firma, however, when it comes to the future of space exploration.


“We need to get the Space Station finished,” he said. “We need to get back to the Moon and establish a permanent base on the Moon. And we need to get to Mars with a manned mission.


“I told the Administrator of NASA [Dan Goldin] that what I really want to do is wait until I’m John Glenn’s age and then I’ll go to Mars!”


And as a perfect finish for our visit, someone asked the one obvious question that we had all wanted to ask, but hadn’t had the guts to say: Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?


“You’re looking at ‘im,” Gordo said with a huge grin.