Nation: Great Gordo

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For 29½ hours, the flight was flawless. Streaking through space at 17,157 m.p.h.. Air Force Major Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr. ate, slept, exchanged banter with ground-bound fellow astronauts, coolly conducted scientific experiments. But now there was trouble. Just as Cooper prepared for the searing plunge through the earth's atmosphere, his autopilot system went out.

The world tensed. Scattered across the globe, 28 ships and 172 aircraft deployed to pick Cooper up—if he got back. From the command ship Coastal Sentry, 275 miles south of Japan, Astronaut John Glenn gave Cooper new...

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