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"Faith" regained: Gordon Cooper interview

Review and interview by Robert Pearlman

July 17, 2000 — To be perfectly truthful, I was not looking forward to reading Leap of Faith, the new book by Mercury and Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper, when my review copy arrived in the mail.

It wasn't that I thought it would be poorly written — Cooper's collaborator was New York Times bestselling author Bruce Henderson.

It wasn't that I didn't want to know more about Cooper's space adventures. As the last of the "Original 7" to pen his memoirs, I was eager to learn how his experiences had compared to the other Mercury astronauts.

"Gordo" was one of the few early astronauts I only knew from his portrayal in The Right Stuff and what others had written about him.

And therein lied the problem.

Many of the stories I had heard about Cooper concerned his interaction with extraterrestrials and UFOs. One story had claimed Cooper exposed the entire Mercury program as a government cover-up for the rendezvous with aliens.

With his publisher proudly stating how Cooper would tackle "hot-button issues such as the secrets of Area 51 and the existence of UFOs" and his sole endorser being known-UFO fanatic and radio host Art Bell, my "faith" in Cooper was faltering.

I wasn't keen in losing one of my boyhood heroes to the reality of whom Cooper had become. Or at least whom I thought he had become.

Unfortunately, reading Faith did not help my situation.

Not that I completely disliked all 288 pages. Close to half of the book recounts Cooper's NASA career, from his selection as a Mercury astronaut to his 22-orbits aboard Faith 7 / Mercury-Atlas 9 to his 8-day ("or bust") mission with the late Charles "Pete" Conrad aboard Gemini 5.

A memorable chapter describes how Cooper and Conrad became the first U.S. astronauts to meet cosmonauts from the Soviet Union. This particular story, one I had personally not heard before, foreshadows our cooperation with Russia (and 15 other countries) today as we work to build the International Space Station.

Cooper even uses one of his early chapters to seemingly place to rest the stories of his extraterrestrial encounters. Reading this, I began to think my fears were unfounded.

However, Leap of Faith takes a strange turn in its latter half. Chronicling both his pre- and post-NASA years, the text conveys Cooper's acceptance of the unknown. From his passion for test flight (the unknown of a new vehicle) to his fascination with reports of UFO sightings, Cooper shares his desire to reach beyond than what is accepted as the norm.

While no one can argue with someone's experiences, in the case Cooper's own sightings, I found some difficultly understanding how someone so connected with ground breaking technology and science could easily embrace ideas such as extraterrestrial visits with little more than anecodotal evidence.

Indeed, Cooper goes beyond mere acceptance, helping establish an institute which at its central core attributes some of our greatest accomplishments to the influences of an advanced alien civilization communicating through telepathy.

When I finished reading Leap of Faith, I found myself questioning how I could trust Cooper's account of his years at NASA if I could not equally place my faith in his experiences after flying into space.

Even more troubling though, was how I would be able to look eye-to-eye with Cooper during my interview knowing full well I did not believe what he had to say.

I asked Cooper whether someone skeptical of his beliefs could enjoy his book. In an unassuming, quiet voice he responded:

"I tried to convey the point that I certainly have an amount of skepticism myself. I am not 100% convinced that all of these reports are true. Certainly, I know that a lot of these sightings have either been made up or are figments of imagination, or weather balloons or whatever.

"But there just have been too many of them that have been by very valid, solid citizens to just be totally skeptical of them. And I guess that's what I was trying to convey — there has certainly got to be a little skepticism about all the stories you hear about because all of them are not true... but I think some are certainly valid."

Cooper was one of my definitions of a solid citizen. My own "leap of faith" was the realization that he still is.

We asked the readers of collectSPACE to submit their questions for our interview with Cooper.

Rick McElvaney of Houston, Texas asks:

With all the automatic systems failures on Faith 7, what system were you anticipating going out that did not?

All of them went out, they were electronically connected. Anything that had to do with electronics was gone.

Francis French asks:

As Backup Commander for Apollo 10, it was expected that you would command the Apollo 13 mission. Are you disappointed that you did not get to fly Apollo to the Moon- or are you glad that you did not fly what turned out to be a dangerous mission?

I am very disappointed that I didn't get to fly Apollo, but I guess I'm not unhappy that I didn't get to fly Apollo 13. That was a pretty tough mission! And it would have been particularly to head off to the Moon and have that happen, and just barely make it around the Moon and back home. That was a tough mission for them.

Ian Hepworth of Old Aberdeen, Scotland asks:

You accomplished many firsts: selected in the first group of astronauts, first person to complete two orbital space flights, first pilot controlled re-entry, addressing the first League of Nations, just to name a few. What was the best "first" that you have achieved and why?

Well I don't know, I've been asked before which were my greatest highlights or which things I was the most proud of, and it would be hard of me to choose.

James Puckett of Bowie, Maryland asks:

Gene Kranz described you as having "boyish enthusiasm and a go-for-broke approach to everything you do." How well does that describe you 37 years after Faith 7?

Well, I guess I still have the same "boyish enthusiam," if not a little grayed around the edges. I still have the same enthusiam and eagerness in doing things. I am still working with airplanes, designing, building and still flying.

Russ Still of Atlanta, Georgia asks:

In "The Right Stuff," at least in the film version, you were credited with the joke about "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"

You're looking at him.

In reality, was that a little joke of yours, or did it come from the imagination of Tom Wolfe?

Well, kind of both -- it was something he picked up that I hinted to him I kind of said.

Steve Lykins of Duluth, Georgia asks:

In all honesty, what felt better: a rocket launch or hauling ass in your Corvette Roadster on a perfect Florida evening?

Well they are two totally different things, probably more all-in-all enjoyable in the Corvette in some ways, but very thrilling on a rocket launch.

Bill Winans of Cleveland, Ohio asks:

As you count flying, archaeology, and treasure hunting among your hobbies, do you collect any items related to your hobbies?

Well, I am kind of a junk collector -- I don't throw anything away. I don't seriously collect or put a lot of money out, but I do have a certain amount of things I collect from all three of my hobbies.

Does anyone in your family collect space memorabilia or items related to your career?

Both of my daughters do some collecting, not overly serious, but they collect some things.

Jimmy Brown of Covington, Georgia asks:

Is there one souvenir from your NASA career that you value above all others?

No, I have a number of items that I place a good deal of personal value. I don't know if any one has any more value than the others.

Wayne Smith of Walkersville, Maryland asks:

If you had the opportunity to own any one item from your mission, what would you choose to keep and why?

Yes, thinking back there might have been a few things but none I could list specifically.

Robert McClimon of Coronado, California asks:

Did the Mercury 7 astronauts ever discuss having mission patches?

We had talked about it but because we were allowed to name the spacecraft, place the name on the side of spacecraft, that sort of sufficed for the lack of patches. When we got into Gemini and the NASA Adminstrator was trying to totally de-personalize the whole program when the mission patch came out.

What do you think about the souvenir version patch for your MA-9 flight?

Oh, its not bad...

David Temple of Longview, Texas asks:

Were any actual Gemini 12 "Trick or Treat" backup crew patches made or did the design exist only as an artist rendering?

To my knowledge they were only made up on paper for the launch party, but I don't think we had any actual patches made.

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