NASA Project Mercury - Gordon Cooper and Faith 7
This page is part of a series on America's first manned space program, Project Mercury. Links to all the hubs in this series can be found at the NASA Project Mercury Overview.
On May 15, 1963, the final mission of NASA's Project Mercury was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. At 8:04 am EST, an Atlas-D rocket carried astronaut Gordon Cooper into orbit, on a mission that would last more than 34 hours.
Following Wally Schirra's textbook flight of Sigma 7 in October, 1962, some within NASA and the Kennedy administration felt it was time to end Project Mercury, on a high note. All resources could then be focused on Mercury's follow-up, Project Gemini.
The longest Mercury flight had been just over 9 hours, however, while the Soviets were already flying missions lasting several days. In addition, Gordon Cooper hadn't yet flown in space, and it would be two years before Gemini would be ready to fly. The decision was made to fly another Mercury mission, a long-duration mission that would bring America's achievements in space closer to those of the Soviet Union.
Cooper's mission, the ninth to be launched by an Atlas rocket (including unmanned tests), was officially known as Mercury-Atlas 9. Each of the Mercury astronauts also named his own spacecraft, however, and Cooper chose the name Faith 7 for his capsule.
In his book Leap of Faith: An Astronaut's Journey Into the Unknown, Cooper said this name reflected "my faith in the launch team, my faith in all the hardware that had been so carefully tested, my faith in myself, and my faith in God".
Modified Mercury Spacecraft
NASA had the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, the contractor which built the Mercury capsules, modify the spacecraft for a longer-duration mission. Certain items were removed to reduce weight, including the periscope, backup voice and telemetry transmitters, and the rate control system thrusters, which were no longer used. Oxygen and water supplies were increased, and larger batteries were added.
To learn more about the Mercury capsule, see Project Mercury - Spacecraft.
More Than A Day In Space
Cooper's mission lasted just over 34 hours, 19 minutes. He traveled 546,167 miles, circling the earth 22.5 times. His orbit was elliptical, with an apogee (maximum altitude) of 165.9 miles and a perigee (minimum altitude) of 100.3 miles. Cooper was weightless for 34 hours, 3 minutes, 30 seconds.
To conserve fuel, much of the flight was spent in drifting mode, where the system that automatically controlled the spacecraft's orientation was turned off, and Cooper made only occasional manual adjustments.
The mission was designed so that at three points in the flight, following the 1st, 7th and 16th orbits, a decision would be made as to whether or not to continue the mission. In each case, the mission was allowed to continue.
Eating and Drinking in Space
Cooper had problems eating in space. Some food items needed to be reconstituted, and Cooper found it difficult to add water to the packages containing these items. He could see crumbs inside another packet containing sandwiches, and did not open it. In the weightless environment, crumbs might float into the equipment and controls, or could be inhaled.
Cooper did eat some bite-sized items, but consumed a total of only 696 calories during his 34 hours in space. His water consumption was also low, and during post-flight examinations he was found to be slightly dehydrated.
Eating and drinking were not critical to the shorter missions that had preceded Cooper's. Astronauts on those flights had eaten small amounts of food, simply to confirm that swallowing was possible when weightless. On longer missions, however, adequate water and caloric intake would be crucial. Cooper's experiences showed that eating in space needed to be made easier.
Sleeping in Space
Sleeping in space, on the other hand, was quite easy for Cooper. There were scheduled sleep periods, and Cooper had no problem falling asleep, nor did he feel any difference in the sleeping and dreaming experience while in space.
When the capsule was in drifting mode, Cooper found the experience quite relaxing, and he said he'd had trouble staying awake at times. In fact, toward the end of the mission, he was instructed to take 5 mg of dextro amphetamine sulfate, to help keep him alert for retrofire and reentry activities. This was the first time drugs were used by an American astronaut in space.
Cooper claimed to have been able to see items as small as individual houses from orbit. At the time, many people believed that this was not possible, and that Cooper had been mistaken. Observations made on later space flights, however, proved that Cooper had been correct.
Science Experiments and Activities
Scientific activities were a large part of Cooper's mission. He released a small sphere with a flashing light, to test the ability of an astronaut to locate a flashing beacon while in orbit. This would be crucial if orbiting spacecraft were to rendezvous on future missions. Cooper was able to find the beacon on subsequent orbits. He also successfully viewed target lights on the ground, an observation thwarted on previous flights by weather conditions.
Cooper obtained many excellent photos, including photos for MIT and the US Weather Bureau, and he sent back the first TV pictures of an American in space. These images were of poor quality, however, partially due to the low levels of lighting in the capsule.
Other activities included observing the behavior of fluids in weightlessness, and taking Geiger counter measurements, which showed that Cooper had not been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation during his flight. An experiment to measure atmospheric drag at various altitudes failed to deploy.
Faith 7 Power Failure
Cooper's flight went well for most of the mission. The biggest problem he'd had was with the temperature inside his pressure suit. The controlling circuit was not working properly, and Cooper was continually making manual adjustments. This was not enough to endanger the mission, however, and at the final go/no-go decision point, which followed the 17th orbit, Mission Control gave Cooper the OK for 22 orbits.
Serious technical problems began on the 19th orbit, when the spacecraft's electrical systems began to fail. The temperature inside the capsule began climbing, as did carbon dioxide levels. On the 20th orbit, Cooper lost all readings indicating the attitude, or orientation, of the spacecraft, and on the 21st orbit the automatic stabilization and control system had failed completely.
Because the radio was wired directly into the batteries, voice communication was possible, but telemetry was lost. Mission Control could no longer monitor and advise Cooper as to condition of his spacecraft. The remainder of the mission, including retrofire and reentry, would have to be completed under manual control, using controllers that were directly connected to the thrusters. These controllers opened the thrusters mechanically, bypassing the capsule's electrical system.
The Right Stuff
As the flight of Aurora 7 had shown, even a small error in the orientation of the spacecraft or timing of retrofire could mean missing the splashdown target by hundreds of miles. A large enough error might result in the astronaut's death.
Because he had no attitude readings, Cooper was forced to use his view of the earth and stars through the capsule window to orient the spacecraft correctly for reentry. The clock inside Faith 7 was dead, so Cooper used his wristwatch to time the manual firing of the retrorockets.
Cooper performed these tasks perfectly, and splashed down in the Pacific ocean just 4.4 miles from the recovery vessel, the U.S.S. Kearsarge. It was the most accurate splashdown of the entire Mercury program. Approximately 40 minutes later, Cooper and Faith 7 were aboard the carrier.
Project Mercury Ends
Gordon Cooper suffered no negative effects from his extended stay in space, and his performance clearly demonstrated that man could function at a high level of effectiveness, even after more than 30 hours of weightlessness.
The Mercury spacecraft had been pushed far beyond its original capabilities, however, and perhaps no more could be expected of it. By the end of Gordon Cooper's flight, most of the systems on the spacecraft were dead. A possible 3-day Mercury mission, to be flown by Alan Shepard, was cancelled.
Project Mercury had met, and surpassed by far, its original objectives, and now it truly was time to begin looking ahead to Project Gemini.
Gordon Cooper and UFOs
Gordon Cooper was a believer in UFOs. Although he denied rumors that he had seen a UFO during his Faith 7 flight, he did claim to have seen several in 1951, as a US Air Force pilot flying over Germany. Years later, in a speech before the United Nations, Cooper said "I believe that these extra-terrestrial vehicles and their crews are visiting this planet from other planets."
In addition to the sources listed on the Project Mercury - Overview page, the following original source documents were used in creating this hub:
- Manned Spacecraft Center, Postlaunch Memorandum Report For Mercury-Atlas No. 9 (MA-9), NASA, 1963
- Manned Spacecraft Center, The Triumph of Astronaut L Gordon Cooper, Jr. and the Faith 7, NASA, 1963
Additional information came from this book:
- Cooper, Gordon, et al., Leap of Faith: An Astronaut's Journey Into the Unknown, HarperTorch, 2002