Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Godspeed, Gordo

There is a poetry to the universe. Events occur proximately the way a theme in a great work of literature is repeated differently but close together in time or space reinforcing some noble truth to the observer. I find it uplifting that on the day a pilot flies SpaceShipOne into space without computer guidance, a man who flew a Mercury capsule back from 22 orbits manually when the onboard systems failed passed away. People who only know of the Faith 7 flight from movies like "The Right Stuff" don't know the whole story of Leroy Gordon Cooper.

Mercury capsules were straight out of the 1950s. Full of wire bundles and not-quite-shielded circuitry made before the advent of miniturization that is the supreme benefit of the American space program, a Mercury capsule would charge like a capacitor in the magnetosphere, and any water in the circuitry could cause them to short out. System by system, the longer one stayed in orbit, the effects would cause systems to fail. Gordon Cooper flew the last operational Mercury mission and the longest one. His laconic coolness on the stick was legendary. He slept on the pad and for eight hours during orbits 10 through 14. Informed about the problems, ground control fearing his automatic reentry system was also failing, Cooper manually lined up the capsule on the horizon, fired the retrorocket pack, and brought his ship down as close to the recovery ship, Kearsage, as any computer could have in May 1963.

Gordon Cooper was the first American to make a second orbital flight. He was the backup commander for Apollo 10. He drove fast cars and fast boats. He was Vice President for Research and Development/EPCOT for Walt Disney. He loved to design aircraft. He chased UFOs over the skies of Europe.

And he was a heckuva fisherman.

To say he had the right stuff has become a cliche. To say he was a real hero doesn't say enough. Yet his life was rounded by accomplishments that few will ever equal and his passing was as well-timed as his reentry from space in a flyable if cheesy spacecraft. Gordon Cooper was a good test pilot. That is finest compliment one can pay.

Godspeed, Gordo.

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