"Thus open the gates of paradise."

In this issue

Gordon Cooper

17 Oct 2004

Gord Cooper in his Mercury
suit. Photo: NASA
Gord Cooper, Mercury Astronaut (4 Oct 2004)

From 1961 to 1963, NASA operated Project Mercury, the effort to put an American into orbit. There were 6 flights, each one longer than then previous, each testing some aspect of flying a man around the earth. Gord Cooper was the last astronaut to fly in the program, piloting the spacecraft he christened "Faith 7".

You might think that putting a man in orbit couldn't be such a big deal, but you'd be wrong. They needed a launch vehicle. Cooper flew atop an Atlas missile which had been originally designed to deliver bombs, not carry a man without crushing him with high G-forces on the way. When the program began, just about as many Atlas boosters exploded on launch as actually took off.

And then there was the problem of talking to the spacecraft once it was in orbit. A world-wide communications system had to be created to allow near-continuous communication with the pilot.

But even more fundamentally, the whole idea of a ground-based mission control centre has to be invented. Now, this concept is taken for granted, but then, it was something new.

At the time, Cooper's Faith 7 flight set the record for longest manned flight at 34 hours, but the thing I liked best about this flight was that Cooper fell asleep while his rocket was in a hold on the pad, and then later in orbit. If I were in a spaceship, in orbit, there's no way I'd ever be able to sleep; I'd be twirling pens in zero-G and looking out the window until my eyes were bloodshot. It takes a pro to be calm in a situation like that, to do his job, and to do it well.

You can read more about Gord Cooper at the following pages on NASA's web site:

Gord Cooper Memorialized
Gord Cooper Biography