VENTURA, Calif. — Gordon Cooper, one of the original Mercury astronauts who pioneered human space exploration, died Monday at his home in Ventura, NASA officials said in a statement. He was 77.
“As one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, Gordon Cooper was one of the faces of America’s fledgling space program,” NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said. “He truly portrayed the right stuff, and he helped gain the backing and enthusiasm of the American public, so critical for the spirit of exploration. My thoughts and prayers are with Gordon’s family during this difficult time.”
Cooper piloted the final flight of the Mercury program, the United States’ first manned spaceflight program that had the primary goal of putting a man in orbit around Earth.
Born March 6, 1927, in Shawnee, Okla., Cooper was selected as a Mercury astronaut in April 1959. The astronauts became heroes in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
On May 15, 1963, Cooper piloted the Faith 7 spacecraft on a 22-orbit mission that concluded the operational phase of the Project Mercury. He flew for 34 hours and 20 minutes.
Two years later, he served as command pilot of the Gemini 5 mission, during which he and Charles Conrad established a space endurance record by traveling more than 3.3 million miles in 190 hours, 56 minutes.
The flight proved that humans could survive in a weightless state for the length of a trip to the moon. It also tested a new power source for future flights — fuel cells.
Cooper joined the Marines during World War II and transferred to the Air Force in 1949. He earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1956.
He then flew numerous flights as a test pilot in the Flight Test Division at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
During a reunion of surviving Mercury astronauts in 1995, Cooper displayed that cocksure attitude that helped make the astronauts heroes to a generation of American youngsters in the early 1960s.
When asked who was the greatest fighter pilot he ever saw, Cooper enthusiastically answered, “You’re looking at him!”
NASA officials also remembered his contributions.
“Gordon Cooper’s legacy is permanently woven into the fabric of the Kennedy Space Center as a Mercury Seven astronaut,” Kennedy Space Center Director Jim Kennedy said. “His achievements helped build the foundation of success for human space flight that NASA and KSC have benefited from for the past four decades.”
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.