Image: Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra
Richard Carson  /  Reuters
The three surviving Mercury astronauts — former Sen. John Glenn, Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra — look on as the colors are retired at the end of a memorial service for fellow Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper at Johnson Space Center in Houston on Friday.
updated 10/15/2004 9:04:48 PM ET 2004-10-16T01:04:48

Mercury program astronaut Gordon Cooper was remembered Friday by NASA officials and fellow space pioneers as “not too bad of a pilot, but a heck of a good astronaut.”

Cooper, who on the final flight of the Mercury program became the first American to spend more than 24 hours in space, died of natural causes Oct. 4 at his home in Ventura, Calif. He was 77.

Those who spoke at Johnson Space Center shared humorous stories and memories of Cooper, one of America’s first seven astronauts.

“Gordon Cooper was not only a great pilot, he was also unflappable,” NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said. “You could count on him in a tight spot, and he also was a character.”

John Glenn remembered how Cooper, after a fishing trip near Cape Canaveral, told his fellow astronauts how he saw the largest bullfrogs he had ever seen while wading waist-deep in a pond.

Someone informed Cooper “they weren’t frogs, but instead alligators,” and he never fished there again, Glenn said.

Of the original Mercury astronauts, only Glenn, Scott Carpenter and Walter M. Schirra are still alive.

“Time has diminished our numbers. We are no longer seven. We are three,” Carpenter said. “We celebrate his contribution, but at the same time we remind ourselves that nothing in the construct of man stands forever.”

Schirra described Cooper as “not too bad of a water skier, not too bad of a pilot but a heck of a good astronaut.”

Cooper is survived by his wife, Suzan, and their children.

Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force’s chief of staff, called Cooper a true national hero.

“We know that Gordon Cooper is off to that place where all airmen seek, a place that is higher, faster and farther,” he said.

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