On Orbit

The public had fallen in love with John Glenn, and NASA could not have been more pleased. The word went out: It’s a long way to the moon. Keep the astronauts in orbit, keep the public’s attention.

Deke Slayton did just that. He took the reins from Glenn and went to work. Wally Schirra was his backup. But soon we began to hear rumblings that Deke was in trouble. The rumor was that it was his heart.

In Washington, presidential science advisor Jerome Wiesner spoke with NASA administrator James Webb. He told the NASA chief the White House had heard about Slayton’s heart irregularity, and added, “Sending Slayton into orbit could be a terrible mistake. Suppose something goes wrong, anything, and the word gets out that the astronaut flying the ship had an erratic heart condition. Who do you think they are going to blame? It wouldn’t matter if his heart had nothing to do with the failure. They’d be after the President’s ass.”

Webb shifted in his seat. “I get your point.”

Wiesner looked at him soberly. “It’s simple, Jim,” he said. “Take him off the flight.”

Webb nodded a half-hearted agreement. He realized the presidential science adviser was still smarting over losing his argument that JFK should cancel the whole damn manned space program.

Deke had idiopathic paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, a disturbance of the rhythm in the muscle fibers in the upper chambers of his heart, and the NASA administrator called for a medical panel to review the facts. The panel agreed with Wiesner. The job of telling Deke fell to the Mercury Seven’s own flight surgeon, Bill Douglas.

“Goddamn it, Bill, those sons-a-bitches can’t do this to me,” Deke shouted. “No one was concerned about this during selection. After all the years I’ve been flying the hottest jets, flying test flights, they said it was no big thing. Now they want me to step down? I can’t believe it,” he pleaded, shaking his head. “There ain’t a damn thing wrong with me.”

There was more bad news.

“I know the rules call for the backup pilot to slip into the seat of an astronaut unable to make a mission,” Dr. Douglas told Deke, “but Wally won’t be going.”

“God!” Deke screamed, “What the hell else?”

Douglas explained that Bob Gilruth decided Scott Carpenter, John Glenn’s backup, had more time in the Mercury simulator than Schirra, and Carpenter would be going in his place.

NASA gave Deke a few minutes with the press and then got him out of Dodge, got him the hell out of the way of Carpenter’s mission. When Aurora Seven lifted off on May 24, 1962, Deke Slayton was at a remote tracking station in Australia.

Scott Carpenter made a perfect ride into orbit. He was a gatherer of facts and a builder of knowledge, and in a sense he was the first science-astronaut. He made the most of what he had on board. On his first two orbits he drank more and ate more. He wanted to know how the digestive tract would handle weightlessness, and he wanted to know the limits of Mercury’s attitude-control jets. By wringing them out, from one position and then to another, he virtually depleted the fuel available for attitude maneuvering. He took all the pictures he could until his cameras ran hot, and then he ran through his scheduled program checklist, which included releasing a balloon in space.

He was having a ball.

After his first two orbits, Mercury Control began to worry. Scott had consumed so much fuel, flight director Chris Kraft was giving serious thought to ending his mission an orbit early. But he made a last-minute decision to let Scott stay up for his third and final planned trip around Earth if he would go into a “drifting mode.” That would conserve fuel. Scott liked the idea. He lay back in the comfort of weightlessness.

But as he entered his final sunrise, he couldn’t control himself. Scott had an idea. He banged his hand against the inside wall of Aurora Seven. He was right. The moment he struck the wall he was flying through a swarm of John Glenn’s “fireflies.” Again he banged the capsule’s bulkhead, and more fireflies slowly moved into view. “Damn,” he cursed. “I must know.” He fired the jets, swung the capsule around, and proved the mysterious fireflies originated from water vapor vented from the Mercury capsule. Vapor produced primarily by the human on board.

The astronaut’s body perspired, urinated, and exhaled, and the moisture was removed from the spacecraft through an external vent on the side of the capsule. The instant this moisture entered the low temperatures of the space night, it froze into ice particles. Some particles swarmed about the capsule or floated away; others clung to the ship’s side, to be knocked off when Scott thumped the wall. When the sun angle was just right, at sunrise or sunset, these particles became the famed “celestial fireflies,” only to be melted away by the heat of the space day.

The thinking astronaut had solved another mystery. But his eagerness to learn had cost Carpenter precious fuel and time needed to prepare for reentry. He landed 250 miles beyond his intended landing target. Scott was isolated on the surface of the Atlantic, beyond radio range. For nearly an hour he was lost to a frantic Mercury Control and to a worried worldwide radio and television audience.

We stayed on the air during the search, and I talked about every space fact I had ever collected. I was down to telling our listeners what the food was like in the Cape’s cafeteria when a recovery aircraft picked up Carpenter’s radio beacon.

The aircraft crew found Carpenter floating in the life raft attached to his bobbing Mercury capsule. Scott had had the good sense to make sure his radio beacon had activated and to bail out of Aurora Seven and climb into his raft. He was just sitting there, eating a Baby Ruth, cataloging what he’d seen and learned.

Behind the scenes, a devastated Deke Slayton was waging a fierce struggle to return to flight status, and his fellow astronauts were worried. To the man, they were concerned about the effect the grounding was having on him.

As you would expect, John Glenn stepped forward. “We’re a team,” he said. “We’ve got to pull for our friend.”

“We’re going to give Deke back his pride,” Alan Shepard said.

“Yew man,” Gus Grissom agreed. Two words from Gus was a full speech.

So they decided to make Deke their boss.

“Give him the power,” Wally Schirra said. “His own title, office, whatever he needs.”

“Hell, he’ll be chief astronaut,” Gordo Cooper said, “but we’ll have to work fast.”


“Washington’s at it again,” Cooper told them. “Our friends at Edwards tell me they’re bringing in an air force general to take charge of the astronauts.”

“Like hell they are,” snapped Shepard. “Maybe an admiral, but no general,” the future admiral laughed.

“Well,” pondered Glenn, “we’ll just stand firm.”

“Damn right,” Cooper agreed. “It’s gotta be one of us.”

“Damn right,” Scott Carpenter said, slamming a fist on the table. “It’s gotta be Deke.”

They stood solid. Stonewall Jackson would have been proud.

NASA knew the Mercury Seven could not fly all the orbital flights in the upcoming Gemini program. New pilots had to be recruited for the astronaut corps. The agency went back and hired Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Charles “Pete” Conrad, James Lovell, James McDivitt, Elliott See, Tom Stafford, Ed White, and John Young. They had just missed the Mercury Seven cut, and with the exception of civilian Armstrong, they were all military. They were immediately dubbed the Gemini Nine.

NASA had also come to realize it needed someone to manage the astronauts’ office, to select flight crews, make assignments, plan and schedule training time, and be a link between the pilots and management. In short, be a mother hen to this elite corps.

The Mercury astronauts made three recommendations to NASA management: Deke Slayton, Deke Slayton, and Deke Slayton. NASA administrator Jim Webb smiled and turned a thumbs-up, and Deke became chief astronaut.

Those who were there said it was like turning on a switch. Deke’s pride was back. The first rule he made was there would be no copilots in space. No test pilot could stomach being called a copilot, and Deke laughed and proclaimed, “Our Gemini crew members will be made up of a command pilot and a pilot.”

Astronaut Wally Schirra is slipped into his Mercury spacecraft Sigma Seven for his textbook flight. (NASA).

Some outsiders judged the appointment as a pacifier for a crestfallen astronaut, but that attitude had a short life. Deke took absolute charge. In short order his office was the power to be reckoned with. The new levels of respect carried over to the entire astronaut team. Everybody stepped back when it came to astronaut selection for flights. Deke carried the ball, and on October 3, 1962, while the World Series was being played, an Atlas rocket boosted Wally Schirra and his Sigma Seven into orbit. Wally proved his skills, as Deke knew he would. He stayed up for six orbits—nine hours. He had been launched with the same fuel quantity as Glenn and Carpenter, but he conserved fuel in a way that amazed Mercury Control. In the process he went through his scientific and engineering checklist with an efficiency that would have turned a robot green with envy.

It was what NASA watchers had been waiting for, a perfect flight. Sigma Seven splashed down less than four miles from the main recovery carrier near Midway Island in the Pacific. One broadcaster dubbed it “the flight of the Mongoose.”

When the dust had settled in the wake of Schirra’s mission, the new Gemini Nine test pilots had been given the title of astronaut. The new group would join the Mercury Seven in flying the Gemini maneuverable spaceships.

Deke Slayton now had fifteen astronauts under his wing. He set the newcomers up for indoctrination and training and figured the more they saw of the remaining days of Project Mercury, the better prepared they’d be for flying the heavier, larger advanced Gemini—a spaceship that could not only maneuver, but could change its orbit, change its altitude, and rendezvous and dock with other ships, a spaceship that would define and test the procedures needed for Apollo to reach the moon.

Slayton also knew something most reporters didn’t. America was going to the moon for national prestige—nothing else. “If the Russians weren’t kicking our ass, Barbree,” he told me, “there would be no Project Apollo.”

Astronaut Gordo Cooper whips himself into shape for his marathon flight by jogging in the shadow of the Saturn 1B rocket pad. (NASA).

The chief astronaut drew up a flight plan that would put Mercury in a category with Russia’s ships in time spent in space. No three-or-six-orbit flight for the fourth and final orbiting Mercury. This would be a shot of twenty-two orbits—a day and a half spent circling Earth. And he would need a “hot dog” to handle such a tough assignment. He would need the best stick-and-rudder man in the air force. He would need Leroy Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, a kick-ass barnyard of a pilot who knew only one way: “Git ’er done.”

Operations director Walt Williams stopped by Deke’s office and said, “Look, I know besides yourself, Gordo Cooper is the only Mercury guy who hasn’t flown. But maybe it would be a good idea to consider moving Al Shepard into this last Mercury flight.” Then Williams saw the chief astronaut’s face. He swallowed hard. “Of course, it’s your call, Deke.”

Deke began to simmer and could barely nod a good-bye when Williams left. He wasn’t fooled for a second. The issue at hand was that Gordon Cooper was too much of a maverick for some in the space-agency hierarchy. His hotshot jet flying and his tendency to bend the rules did not sit well with them. Deke judged Gordo as nothing less than a terrific pilot. He had come up through the ranks—paying his dues all along the way, flying everything from J–3 cubs to F–106s, and he belonged at the stick of the last Mercury. If anyone knew how it felt to have an earned flight yanked from under his feet, it sure as hell was Deke Slayton. He wasn’t about to stand by and see Gordo get the shaft.

And there was something else. There were the elitists who disapproved of Gordo’s Oklahoma twang. “He’s nothing but a redneck,” laughed some members of the press and NASA’s public affairs office. To them the fact that Leroy Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, Jr. was one of the best pilots on earth was irrelevant. They just didn’t want “trailer park trash” representing NASA.

Gordo Cooper met this problem as he did all of his problems: head on. He invited the NASA public affairs officer leading the attack on his heritage outside and simply assured him he would kick his condescending ass. The man’s only defense was to “hide behind the rules and laws drafted by lesser men” and then to run. Scared out of his wits, the NASA mouthpiece went to Deke only to be told by the chief astronaut, “If Gordo needs any help kicking your ass, he can count on me.”

That was the end of it. The flight was Gordo’s.

Two days before Cooper’s scheduled liftoff, the launch team was on an around-the-clock readiness schedule with his Atlas and spacecraft, and our NBC crews were setting up our broadcast trailers for the launch. Everyone was hard at work when suddenly we heard a tremendous BOOM rip through the launch-pad complex. Nobody saw flames. Everyone was certain there had been an explosion. But there was no smoke rising, no buildings collapsing…

Then we saw it. Cooper’s jet howled away from the Cape in a dizzying climb after laying down a supersonic thunderbolt across the launch center. It was his friendly way of saying, “Morning, everybody!”

His thunderous arrival was the art of “buzzing,” a tradition that dated back to the Wright brothers, and was hardly new to fighter pilots of Gordo Cooper’s skills. It was a ceremonial rite for the astronauts now, as it had been before they’d ever considered going into space.

Never-smile Walt Williams was standing in his office when Gordo and his F–102 shot by at window level. The sonic boom shook the building, made him drop the papers he was holding and sent his hands to stop his heart from leaping out of his throat. He spun around cursing and stomped into the outer office, where Alan Shepard sat.

“Does you spacesuit still fit you?” he bellowed.


“Simple question, Shepard,” he shouted. “Does your spacesuit fit?”

Shepard played dumb. Again. “Why?”

“Because I want to know if you’re ready to step in for ‘hotdog,’ that’s why!”

Shepard made a valiant effort to suppress howling laughter. After all, he was hardly innocent of such buzzing greetings himself; he’d shaken more than his share of windows on Cape Canaveral. But he took the diplomatic route. He managed to calm down the irate, foot-stomping operations director and got him to join him and Deke at Henri’s bar that evening.

“We’ll talk about it then,” Shepard assured Williams, before walking outside and grabbing his stomach for his own belly laugh.

That evening, Shepard and Slayton pumped a couple of drinks in Williams and managed a smile from the much-too-serious Mercury boss.

The Mercury Seven stood solid. They told the operations director flatly that Cooper was flying the mission, and Shepard added with a tone not to be challenged, “Gordo has earned that seat, and there’s not a pilot among us who’d step in and take it away. Certainly not me.”

End of discussion.

As Project Mercury’s final launch approached, the Gemini Nine judged they should show reverence and respect for the Mercury trailblazers. They planned an elaborate dinner for the Seven, and Henri Landwirth lent his motel’s kitchen to the likes of Pete Conrad, Gene Cernan, Jim Lovell, and Neil Armstrong. Then he helped the gang of nine with their dastardly deed.

They advertised the Mercury Seven’s dinner as a magnificent meal of breaded veal, potatoes au gratin, tropical salads, and the finest imported wines.

Well, at least they made good on their promise of the finest of imported wines, and the Mercury astronauts mumbled their surprise and thanks to the new group. They immediately began the required toasting and bestowing of good wishes and fortune on one another. It was comradeship at its finest, a measure of friendship to warm hearts and minds. Then sixteen astronauts sat down to enjoy the gastronomical repast.

The lavish feast was served by waiters using silver trays from Henri Landwirth’s own collection. The Gemini group had prepared a sumptuous feast of fried breaded cardboard likened to veal; putrid, au rotten potatoes blackened from their own decomposition; and a bellied-up salad that had been steaming in the hot, tropical sun all day. Silence descended.

Gordo Cooper sat quietly, telling himself, “This ain’t my first rodeo.” He had, indeed, been here before. His own reputation at air bases around the world had been built on such pranks and moments. He simply refused to admit to a truly classic “gotcha!”

He smiled, nodded thanks to his hosts with another toast, and to the utter astonishment of the Gemini Nine astronauts, Cooper chowed down, eating the whole damn putrid and impossible mess.

Many had tried to rattle the cage of this man and just as many had failed. Prejudice and regional bias had kept Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr. grounded until the last Mercury launch, and on the morning of May 15, 1963, as the countdown approached liftoff, they had to awaken him for his long-delayed ride into Earth orbit. During an unplanned hold in the count, he fell asleep. Now he was ready to fly higher, farther, and longer than anyone before—a day-and-a-half mission where he would become the first human to sleep in space. As Slayton and his fellow Mercury astronauts knew he would, Cooper flew a technically perfect mission right on through his nineteenth orbit, thirty hours in space, setting a new American endurance record with every sweep around Earth.

Suddenly, there was a possible problem. Every flight controller in Mercury Control was alert and focused on a green light flashing on the wall-wide tracking map. “Holy crap,” Bob Harrington shouted. “He’s on the way back!” The light was the “.05g” signal, scheduled to shine when a Mercury capsule began descent into the atmosphere. CapCom made an immediate call to the spacecraft. “Hey, Gordo, this .05g signal light down here says you’re on reentry!”

“Like hell we are,” he told the ground.

Cooper settled back. He had been waiting for something like this. The flight until this point had been picture-perfect and after thirty hours in space, this glitch was the first signal that his Faith Seven was coming apart. It had been a good ship, but it had been stretched to its limits, and with just a couple of orbits to go, the glitch was certain to grow. It did. Within minutes, electrical surges knocked out the navigational instruments that kept Cooper informed of his location over Earth. Then, on orbit twenty-one, the automatic control system rolled over and died. That meant that Cooper would have to fire his retro-rockets manually.

Astronaut Gordo Cooper’s Mercury-Atlas heads into space. (NASA).

But to Gordo Cooper, trouble in flight was what they paid him the big bucks for. “Well,” he told the ground in his unmistakable twang, “it looks like we’ve got a few little washouts here. I’ve lost all electrical power. Carbon dioxide levels are above maximum limits, and cabin and suit temperatures are climbing. Looks like we’ll have to fly this thing ourselves. Other than that, things are fine.”

“Things are fine like hell,” Slayton laughed out loud. “If the carbon dioxide levels keep climbing Gordo will be dead, and the only reason why he can still talk to us is his radio is on independent battery. Let’s get him down, guys,” he yelled across Mercury Control.

Knowing Gordo, Deke had a feeling everything was going to be all right. He was happy as hell that on this endurance flight, man had proven more dependable than machine.

With just an hour to go in the flight, Mercury Control worked out procedures and maneuvers on a precise timetable, and John Glenn, stationed on a tracking ship south of Japan, radioed them up to Cooper.

“It’s been a real fine flight, Gordon,” Glenn told him. “Beautiful all the way.”

After twenty-two trips around Earth in zero-g (weightlessness), Cooper fired his three retro-rockets.

Glenn reported to Mercury Control: “He held it close, very tight. They were right on time on our marks here. They looked good, sounded good, and were good.” Even the great John Glenn was impressed.

Gordo Cooper was threading the needle for his return from space. He would tell me later that he flew like he had never flown before. All of the skills his pilot father had taught him, all that the books and great flyers could teach him in test-pilot training, all the thousands of hours he had spent wearing high-speed jets in the sky, had honed his abilities for this moment.

For Cooper’s mission I was on the air with the great John Chancellor. Over and over we said we were witnessing an almost impossible flying job.

Chancellor and I watched as Faith Seven came out of the sky, rolling steadily, the Oklahoma farm boy flying with a precision that controllers mumbled was tighter than the autopilot or computers had ever delivered.

Leroy Gordon Cooper plopped his Mercury spaceship into the sea a stone’s throw from his recovery ship.

John Chancellor shook his head in disbelief. After we were off the air, he stared at me in question. “He was flying a dead ship, why didn’t he die up there? Why didn’t he burn to death?” Chancellor shook his head again, disbelieving. “Gordo Cooper today made me proud of my old Kentucky home.”

I suppose Gordo made all us southerners proud, even Deke Slayton from southern Wisconsin. He told Gordo he’d done the best stick-and-rudder job ever. That he’d justified everything the astronauts had ever claimed, filled every promise that a hands-on pilot was the most needed system to fly in space.

“What a precision ending to Project Mercury, Gordo!” Deke smiled, grabbing his hand.

At the White House, President John Kennedy bids farewell to Gordo Cooper and his wife and daughters before he heads to Capitol Hill, where he would speak before a joint session of Congress. (NASA).

“We aim to please, Deke,” Gordo said with a grin as wide as Oklahoma and half of Texas, as the robot boys, those who say humans are not needed in space, walked away mumbling to themselves.

Gordo Cooper so impressed his country’s citizens they gave him a parade in the nation’s capital, where afterward he stopped by the White House to pick up a medal from President Kennedy before trotting off to the Capitol to speak before Congress. For the lawmakers, he repeated a spontaneous prayer he had made in space, and the magazine New Republic wrote: “His flight fell on the anniversary of Lindbergh’s lonely trip to Paris, who carried with him, you remember, a letter of introduction to the Ambassador. Major Cooper, it occurred to us, carried with him a letter of introduction to God.”


Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan (seated in the Lunar Rover), Harrison Schmitt, and Ron Evans in front of their Saturn V ready for launch. (NASA).

Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin plants the American flag on the moon. (NASA).

Apollo 17 astronauts at work at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. (NASA).

Harrison Schmitt takes geological samples from a house-sized lunar rock. Apollo 17’s Lunar Rover is parked at the rock’s opposite end. (NASA).

NASA presents the last man on the moon, Gene Cernan, ABC’s Hugh Downs, NBC’s Jay Barbree, AP’s Howard Benedict, and America’s first astronaut Alan Shepard with flags that went to the moon. (Barbree Collection).

“Light Echo” illuminates dust around Super Giant star V838 Monocerotis in this Hubble photograph. (NASA).

Space shuttle Columbia’s liftoff is reflected in one of the Cape’s lagoons. (Michael R. Brown/Florida Today).

April 6, 1997: space shuttle astronauts in earth orbit took this sunset photograph of the Comet Hale-Bopp. (NASA).

Lightning writes a warning over America’s spaceport in this magnificent photograph. (Michael R. Brown/Florida Today).

An Atlas rocket climbs into Cape Canaveral’s morning sun. (Michael R. Brown/Florida Today).

The International Space Station under orbital construction. (NASA).

Discovery rolls to its launch pad. (Michael R. Brown/Florida Today).

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