2,060 Minutes: Gordo Cooper and the Last American Solo Flight in Space

The Atlantic

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Pre-Hadfieldian! A picture captured by Gordo Cooper aboard Faith 7 (NASA)

Imagine being alone, in space. Just you and your shiny spacesuit and your tiny metal capsule, the world splayed beneath you in swaths of blue and swirls of white. The only immediate link to the humans below you being a faint, crackling radio line back to Earth.

It sounds kind of amazing, right? 

The first fortunate human to experience this most sublime of plane rides was Yuri Gagarin, just over 52 years ago. And the last person to experience it -- for the U.S., at least -- was Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr., who piloted NASA's final Mercury mission, Atlas 9, 50 years ago this week.

Cooper, who was a little more commonly and a lot more awesomely known as "Gordo," wasn't merely the last American to make a solo journey into space. His trip also set a new record for the longest amount of time spent in space. He was, for a stretch of minutes that must have felt at once impossibly long and frustratingly short, the first American to really travel to space.

In that, though, Cooper followed a long line of sojourners. The Mercury program, overall, had two goals: send a human into orbit, and do it before the Russians. And while it didn't succeed in the latter mission, Mercury did end up sending a series of men beyond Earth's confines. Their flights, though, were relatively brief. Alan Shepard, who made the U.S.'s first suborbital flight into space, spent a mere 15 minutes away from Earth that first time out; John Glenn, who made the first orbits of the planet for the U.S., had a nearly 5-hour flight (as did Malcolm Carpenter, who made another three orbits in 1962). 

Before NASA's Atlas 9 mission, the longest amount of time an American had spent in space had been a whopping 9 hours and 13 minutes -- a record set by Wally Schirra, who made six orbits of Earth for the Mercury program in October of 1962.

And then Cooper, the seventh member of the "Original Seven," came along. Gordo, for his part, spent a total of one day, 10 hours, 19 minutes, and 49 seconds in space, making 22 full orbits of the planet before splashing down in the Pacific on May 16, 1963. (His flight overall took 34 hours.) Over the course of his long voyage, Cooper had a dinner of "powdered roast beef mush" washed down with water. He captured mesmerizing pictures of the Earth below. He became the first American to sleep in space.

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Gordo Cooper, modeling a '60s-style spacesuit (NASA)

The story doesn't end there, though: Cooper also ran into some trouble. On his 19th orbit, the solo astronaut encountered a problem with the indicator light on the craft he named himself, Faith 7. On the 20th, he lost his attitude readings. On the 21st, a short-circuit occurred, leaving the tiny craft's automatic stabilization and control systems without electrical power.

Suddenly, the crackling radio connecting Gordo to Earth became even more crucial than it had been before. John Glenn, aboard a ship in Japan at the time, communicated with Cooper as he swept around the planet, helping the solo space traveler to revise the checklist NASA had prepared for his entry back to Earth. Meanwhile, Mercury Control Center was in a flurry of worried activity," one history has it, "cross-checking Faith 7's problems and Cooper's diagnostic actions with identical equipment at the Cape [Canaveral] and in St. Louis, then relaying to each communications site questions to ask and instructions to give."

The team soon had another problem to wrestle with: rising carbon dioxide levels in Cooper's craft -- and in his suit. The cabin temperature was rising to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. "Things are beginning to stack up a little," Cooper told the ground of the issue, understatedly.

Indeed. Throughout all this, reports make a point of emphasizing, Cooper -- alone in space, in a tiny, malfunctioning pod named Faith -- remained calm. This was in part because he had taken a medically prescribed pill of dextroamphetamine, stimulating his alertness. But it was also because these are the kinds of situations that astronauts, then as now, are trained for. Ground Control determined that Cooper, given the problems Faith 7 was experiencing, would need to make a manual re-entry back to Earth. The margin of error for angling the craft correctly would be slight: If Cooper came in too steeply, g-forces would crush him; if his trajectory were too shallow, the craft would bounce off the atmosphere and be shot back into space.

But a manual re-entry it was going to have to be. Cooper made his calculations, with help from the ground, based on his knowledge of star patterns. In the process, he disproved the "spam in a can" idea that Chuck Yaeger had famously derided when it came to the Mercury missions: Gordo was much more than simply an experimental body in a NASA-piloted spaceship. He put his education -- and his environs -- to use, drawing lines on Faith 7's window to help him check his orientation against the constellations outside. He shifted from passenger to pilot. "I used my wrist watch for time," Cooper later recalled, "my eyeballs out the window for attitude."

He got it right: Cooper splashed down safely, right next to the aircraft carrier that had been dispatched to retrieve him. Which wouldn't come as a surprise to the NASA engineers who had worked with him on the final Mercury mission. The last American to solo in space was given that honor in large part because of his capacity for self-reliance. "He knew what he was doing," a NASA coworker would later recall, "and could always make things work."

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