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 re-entry instructions. Cooper was unruffled. Said he wryly: "I'm looking for lots of experience on this flight." Replied Glenn, the first American to make an orbital flight: "You're going to get it."

He got it. After being strapped in the 6-ft.-wide Faith 7 for nearly a day and a half, he had to take over when the best equipment that the best of science could provide failed. He had to respond with incredible precision to directions from earth; he had to show a kind of skill and nerve and calm that no man has ever had to demonstrate. While people around the world listened with deep anxiety, Major Cooper seemed cooler than any man on earth. Finally, he piloted his craft into the atmosphere, and his communications blacked out. After four minutes of excruciating silence from space, he was sighted by radar—and moments later, a roar of triumph came from sailors aboard the carrier Kearsarge, 115 miles east-southeast of Midway. Four miles off the port bow, Cooper's orange and white chute floated down through a brilliant blue sky. He was safe—he had done what his equipment could not do.

The Pilot. What kind of man did it take to do what Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr. did? Of the original seven U.S. astronauts, "Gordo" Cooper was the youngest (36), slightest (5 ft. 9 in., 147 Ibs.), quietest, least known—and, in the opinion of many, the least likely to win the world's acclaim for a marvel of skill and courage.

Cooper was the sixth astronaut to enter space—and some officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had been reluctant to give him his chance. They tabbed Cooper as something of a complainer, as unpredictable, and as indifferent to building the "public image" demanded of astronauts. Hardly had he entered the Mercury program four years ago when Cooper protested about the time required away from his family. He com plained, too, about the astronauts' lack of opportunity to fly jets—and "incidentally" to collect flight pay. He shied away from the public togetherness of the other astronauts and their wives, leading one wife to sputter: "Why, he's . . . he's . . . he's not an astronaut!"

More than any other astronaut, Cooper displayed his bitterness at being passed over on earlier space flights. Yet when NASA doctors grounded Astronaut Donald Slayton because of a heart flutter, Cooper threatened to quit the program. After the fifth U.S. man-in-space flight, a superb six-orbit job by Wally Schirra, there were reports that last week's flight would be flown by Alan Shepard. Schirra, a close friend of Cooper's, put an end to that: he threatened to raise a public ruckus if Cooper were bypassed.

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