Who's The Best Pilot You Ever Saw?
Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr. (1927 - 2004)
If you're a space-geek like me, 4 October is going to carry a great deal of meaning from now on.
It's ironic to a degree that defies rational understanding: on the same day Brian Binnie wins the X Prize by piloting Spaceship One on it's record setting flight into space (on the 47th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik no less), one of the pioneering "star voyagers" of Project Mercury should leave us. Gordon Cooper was the sixth and last of the Original Seven Mercury astronauts to complete a mission (the seventh, Deke Slayton had been grounded due to irregular heart rhythms), completing 22 orbits in "Faith 7" in May of 1963.
Chances are my dad sat me down in front of an old black-and-white television somewhere in the outskirts of Cheyenne to watch the liftoff, as he claims to have done with the earlier Mercury shots. I still remember these moments with a sort of clarity, and there's a good likelihood these indelible moments etched itself on my synapses as some of my earliest cognizant memories. I can quite easily conjur up the image of a slender, needle shaped object rising on a plume of cotton candy smoke, but it's one I've seen repeated so many times during the course of my life that I have to honestly wonder whether these are actual memories, or merely an approximation of what I think I remember.
Two years later Cooper and rookie astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad spent a grueling eight days inside their Gemini 5 capsule, on a 122-orbit mission that covered more than three million miles, proving that it was physically possible for men to travel the relatively short distance of 500,000 miles to the moon and back. It was the last time he flew in space, although he remained on active duty until 1970, by which time the public had lost interest in the Apollo program, and Congress had axed the last three planned missions, effectively ending his shot at ever setting foot on the moon.
So, now of the Original Seven only three remain: John Glenn, Scott Carpenter (the only one I ever met personally), and Wally Schirra. Gus Grissom of course died during the tragic Apollo 1 fire in 1967. Slayton, who finally got his ride as commander of the 1972 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project died in 1993, and Al Shepard, the first American into space went in 1998.
Given the coincidence of today's events it's not hard to imagine that while Brian Binnie was making his historic flight this morning, the line from an old movie might have come to mind.
"Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"
Seeing the curve of the blue earth highlighted against the velvet black of outer space, Binnie might have looked at his own sun burnished face reflected in one of Spaceship One's port windows, smiled to himself and thought,
"You're looking at him."
And Gordo Cooper would have been smiling too.
on 4:38 PM