Freemasons have always pushed the boundaries of human thought and deed, striving to be the best version of ourselves while serving a high purpose. Given this passion for gaining knowledge and serving others, it’s no surprise that many American Freemasons have also been members of the armed services, accomplished scientists, and fearless adventurers. Brother Leroy Gordon “Gordo” Cooper was all three.
In 1965, Brother Cooper was the command pilot on Gemini 5, venturing to the stars alongside fellow Freemasons Buzz Aldrin and Gus Grissom. The crew spent eight days in space, and the mission was a critical step towards achieving a round-trip journey to the moon. Aboard the flight, Cooper and his brethren honored the Masonic fraternity with a Scottish Rite banner to celebrate the journey.
This gesture demonstrated Cooper’s deep appreciation for Freemasonry. An accomplished Mason in his day, Gordon was a Master Mason of Carbondale Lodge, No. 82 in Carbondale, Colorado, was a member of the Shrine and York Rite, and received the honorary 33° degree from the Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction.
Born to Fly
Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr. was born on March 6, 1927, in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He was the only child of Leroy Gordon Cooper Sr., a navy veteran, and his wife, Hattie Lee Herd, a school teacher. The young Cooper spent his childhood in Shawnee, where his passion for aviation started very early. He could already fly his family’s Command-Aire 3C3 biplane by age eight. Gordon completed his first “unofficial” solo flight at just 12 years old and earned his pilot’s license when he was 16.
At the time, the aviation community was small and tight. Because Cooper worked at the local airport, he came to know famous aviators such as Amelia Earhart, Roscoe Turner, and Wiley Post. In addition to flying, Cooper played on the football and track teams, including a stint as a halfback in the state football championship during his senior year of high school. After graduating in 1945, he hoped to join the Navy flying school, but recruitments were halted. Instead, he enlisted with the Marine Corps and began a long and accomplished career serving his country.
In the Service
Soon after Gordon enlisted in the military, World War II ended, and he was never deployed overseas. He was ultimately assigned to guard duty in Washington, D.C., and served with the Presidential Honor Guard. The following year he was discharged from the Marine Corps and moved to Hawaii to live with his parents. Upon leaving the Marines, Cooper earned a commission with the U.S. Army at the University of Hawaii.
While living in Honolulu, Gordon purchased a J-3 Cub and joined the local flying club. Here, he met his first wife, Trudy B. Olson, who was also an active pilot. They were married on August 29, 1947, in Honolulu and went on to have two daughters. Eager to put his aviation skills to use for the military, Cooper transferred to the U.S. Air Force in 1949. He was stationed at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he finally earned his time in the sky. While living and working in Ohio, Cooper studied for a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), which he earned in 1956.
At AFIT, Cooper met fellow USAF officer and Freemason Gus Grissom. The two struck up a friendship, unaware of the exciting and sometimes scary places it would take them. For instance, in 1956, they were in an accident during a takeoff from Lowry Field. The Lockheed T-33 Cooper was flying suddenly lost power, forcing him to abort the takeoff only for the landing gear to collapse and causing the plane to crash at the end of the runway. Miraculously both Cooper and Grissom were unharmed despite the aircraft being wrecked.
Throughout the 1950s, Gordon gained experience flying various aircrafts, including F-84s and F-86s, in the Eighty-Sixth Fighter Bomber group in Munich. In 1959, he relocated to Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he served as a test pilot in the Flight Test Division while attending the Air Force Experimental Flight Test School. Now a decade into his Air Force tenure, Cooper clocked over 7,000 hours of flying time, including over 4,000 hours in jet aircraft.
A Mercury Seven
In the spring of 1959, Gordon Cooper’s life changed forever when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chose him as one of the original Mercury astronauts. The United States of America was caught in a race for control of space with the Soviet Union, and NASA was eager to select its best pilots and aeronautical minds to represent the nation. Cooper was the youngest of the seven pilots selected out of the 109 that were recruited. The others that were selected included Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, and notable Ohio Freemason and future senator John Glenn.
The Mercury seven were immediately elevated as American heroes, braving the final frontier of space for their country. In 1963, Cooper piloted Faith 7, the final and longest of the Mercury flights. It lasted from May 15–16, with Gordon flying for over 34 hours and orbiting the Earth 22 times. Not only was he the last human to fly into space alone, but he also performed a remarkable feat: he had to assume manual control of the spacecraft during reentry because the automatic controls failed.
The Faith 7 experienced a power failure while Gordon was in his 19th orbit. This caused carbon dioxide levels to rise in Cooper’s suit and the cabin, driving the temperature to a sweltering 130°F. Despite losing the clock and gyroscopes, the radio remained functional, allowing Cooper to communicate with mission control. Despite controversy during the engineering process, all Mercury flights were designed to allow for fully manual control.
Cooper assumed control of the capsule and used his knowledge of star patterns to successfully guide the ship into reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Even the slightest error in calculating his orientation could have enormous implications for his landing point. Cooper drew lines on the capsule window to check his orientation, used his wristwatch for time, and relied on looking out the window to determine his altitude.
Amazingly, Cooper’s calculations and piloting skills landed him just four miles (6.4 km) away from the recovery ship, the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge. He was celebrated with a parade in New York City on May 22nd which was attended by more than four million people. Following the parade, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and former President Herbert Hoover gave speeches honoring Cooper. Cooper traveled 546,167 statute miles and a top speed of 17,546 miles per hour aboard the Faith 7. It was the longest distance traveled in space by an American astronaut at that time.
As the follow-up mission to Project Mercury, Project Gemini planned to send a two-person craft into space for the first time. Cooper was put in command of Gemini 5, which was to be a eight-day long mission and include 120 orbits around Earth, double the length of the U.S. space-flight record of the Gemini 4 mission. This lengthy mission aimed to set the stage for a trip to the moon by proving humans could survive long enough in space to complete a round trip.
The crew tested new fuel cells to demonstrate they could power longer missions, a key innovation for future Apollo flights. Cooper and his team established a new space endurance record during this voyage by traveling 3,312,993 miles in 190 hours (~8 days) and 56 minutes. Brother Cooper became the first man to orbit the Earth on two separate occasions, bringing his total time in space to 225 hours and 15 minutes, or over nine days.
Retirement and Honors
After being passed over for command of the Apollo 13 mission, Cooper retired from the Air Force and NASA in 1970. His expertise and vast knowledge of the field earned him positions serving on the boards of directors of several companies in the aerospace, electronics, and energy fields. Cooper also started his own consulting firm, Gordon Cooper & Associates, Inc., and consulted on numerous technical projects. He also famously worked from 1973 to 1975 for The Walt Disney Company as the Vice President of Research and Development for Epcot.
With a long and distinguished career, Cooper earned numerous awards, including the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Force Legion of Merit, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the Collier Trophy, and the Harmon Trophy.
Gordon Cooper died on October 4, 2004, at age 77, from heart failure at his home in Ventura, California. His many years working in service to his country and pushing the boundaries of human accomplishment remain an inspiration for many.