One of the original Mercury 7 astronauts -- a select group of the nation's top military test pilots chosen for America's newly formed manned space exploration program -- Gordon Cooper made history. Now, in this compelling, down-to-earth memoir, he recalls his adventurous life pushing the envelope in the cockpits of planes and spacecraft alike. He also looks toward the next millennium of space travel, offering deeply held views on the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence -- including the distinct possibility that we have already made contact.
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JASON CULP has been featured on General Hospital and Days of Our Lives and in the cult film Skinheads. His audio narration credits include For the Love of the Game and A Hole in the Universe. He lives in New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In early January 1959 I received unexpected orders to report to Washington, D.C. At the time I was a thirty-two-year old air force captain with twelve years of service, based at topsecret Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert.
The best test pilots in the air force were assembled at Edwards, and I had a great job. As a test pilot in the engineering branch, I had the best of both worlds. I saw a project from the design and administrative side as well as from the pilot's seat. I was testing and flying the nation's top new aircraft-hot fighters like the F-102 and F-106, and the secret U-2, a reconnaissance aircraft built like a graceful glider (and not much faster than one) with an unusually long wingspan and lightweight fuselage, that could fly higher than the surface-to-air missiles of the day.
A day or two before I was due to leave for Washington, I was called into the base commander's office with three other test pilots-including one named Donald "Deke" Slayton-who had received similar orders.
Our commanding officer, General Marcus F. Cooper (no relation), asked if any of us knew what our orders were about.
"No, sir," we all replied.
"No one will tell me anything," the general groused.
He was a good CO, a lot better than the old-stick-in-the mud general he'd replaced a year earlier. General Cooper remembered what it was like to be a young pilot, and he was very protective of his men as long as we did the job he asked of us.
I did see in the paper the other day," he went on, "that McDonnell Aircraft has been awarded a contract for the new manned space program that's starting up."
My ears perked up. I knew nothing about any "manned space program."
"Gentlemen," General Cooper said with authority, "if this has anything to do with flying in space, I want you to be very careful what you volunteer for. I don't want my best pilots to be involved in some idiotic program."
It had been a little over a year since that historic day in October 1957 when the Russians launched Sputnik, the world's first manmade satellite. The 184-pound satellite-about the size of a basketball-could be heard by American tracking stations as it orbited Earth making a characteristic "beep-beep" sound. Residents of neighborhoods across the country waited anxiously in their yards and streets, peering into the sky at a fastmoving speck of light that was surprisingly easy to see.
I had realized that Sputnik stood to open up a whole new era, and that the Soviet Union had the potential for being one up on us militarily. It reasoned that people and events on Earth could one day be observed from space. When that happened, there would be nowhere to hide.
Two months later, the U.S. Navy attempted to launch the first American satellite. It was also the first nationally televised rocket launch. Upon completion of the countdown, the Vanguard rocket lifted less than a foot off the ground before the first stage, loaded to the gills with fuel, exploded. The rest of the rocket sank in slow motion toward the ground, embedding itself in the sand next to the launch platform like a bumed-out firecracker. It left an indelible image of America's opening bid in the space race.
Were they now actually thinking of strapping a man onto a rocket?
Unbeknownst to any of us, qualifications for prospective astronaut-pilots had been established by NASA, the newly founded civilian agency designated to lead America's efforts in space, which had received funding from Congress only after Sputnik. Although the United States did not yet have the spacecraft and other hardware necessary to send a man into space, NASA came up with a list of specific requirements to describe the kind of space pilots it was seeking.
It was believed that they needed to be in their physical prime while possessing a degree of maturity to handle difficult situations. Maximum age was set at forty. Maximum height was five feet, eleven inches, an arbitrary cutoff that eliminated any number of otherwise well-qualified pilots. The spacecraft already on the drawing board had its dimensions dictated by the diameter of the available boosters--the Redstone and Atlas missiles--that would launch it into space. Those dimensions were seventy-four inches wide at the base, and it was determined that once a pilot had on helmet and pressure suit and was strapped in for liftoff, anyone six feet or taller wouldn't be able to squeeze inside.
The weight limit was set at 180 pounds for two reasons. The first had to do with the finite (and limited) payload of the available boosters-the more a man weighed, the less room there would be for the equipment that would be necessary for a safe and successful mission. Just as important was the belief that anyone who met the height requirement but weighed more than 180 pounds would probably be overweight and therefore have a less than optimal metabolic and circulatory system to handle the stresses of prolonged weightlessness and rapid changes in temperature.
The search for candidates narrowed to the ranks of practicing test pilots--meaning pilots from the air force, navy, and marines, along with a handful of civilians. The theory was that test pilots had the instincts and training required to handle a complex spacecraft traveling at high speeds and high altitudes. It made sense that the same men who were testing our country's hottest jets should be in the driver's seat when it came time to launch a manned space vehicle.
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