With his spacecraft's systems failing and his oxygen running low, Gordon Cooper was on the verge of burning up in the Earth's atmosphere as he hurtled toward the big blue rock at more than 17,000 mph.
The nation watched the final Mercury Mission live on May 15, 1963, as Cooper, a Shawnee native, orbited the Earth 22 times and logged more time in space than all of the previous five Mercury astronauts combined.
His main objective was to test the effects of a lengthy stay in space on his body and how well he could react to spending more than 34 hours in space.
Turns out the spacecraft gave out before he did.
“Things are beginning to stack up a little,” he said as the electrical power cut out to the automatic stabilization and control systems.
Cooper remained calm, using the constellations outside his window and his $10 Timex wristwatch to line himself up, he calculated the exact time he needed to fire the ship's rockets to put him on the path to re-entry.
Fifty years later, Cooper's flight is revered as a landmark moment in space history as it proved the importance of the astronaut and paved the way for further long-term space explorations.
“Man is a pretty good backup system to all these automatic systems,” he said in the days after his flight.”
Cooper was honored by parades in Honolulu, Cocoa Beach, Washington — where he addressed a joint session of Congress — and New York City, where he was hailed by one of the largest ticker tape crowds ever to greet an individual as an estimated 4.5 million New Yorkers filled the streets to get a look at the Oklahoma pilot.
Cooper died on Oct. 4, 2004, at age 77 of natural causes.
State Senate to honor astronaut
The Senate is expected Wednesday to honor the life of the late Gordon Cooper, one of the seven original astronauts in Project Mercury, the first manned space program of the United States. Senate Resolution 34, by Sens. Ron Sharp, R-