2,060 Minutes: Gordo Cooper and the Last American Solo Flight in Space

Imagine being alone in space ... and almost not making it back.
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Pre-Hadfieldian! A picture captured by Gordo Cooper aboard Faith 7 (NASA)

Imagine being alone, in space. Just you and your shiny spacesuit and your tiny metal capsule, the world splayed beneath you in swaths of blue and swirls of white. The only immediate link to the humans below you being a faint, crackling radio line back to Earth.

It sounds kind of amazing, right? 

The first fortunate human to experience this most sublime of plane rides was Yuri Gagarin, just over 52 years ago. And the last person to experience it -- for the U.S., at least -- was Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr., who piloted NASA's final Mercury mission, Atlas 9, 50 years ago this week.

Cooper, who was a little more commonly and a lot more awesomely known as "Gordo," wasn't merely the last American to make a solo journey into space. His trip also set a new record for the longest amount of time spent in space. He was, for a stretch of minutes that must have felt at once impossibly long and frustratingly short, the first American to really travel to space.

In that, though, Cooper followed a long line of sojourners. The Mercury program, overall, had two goals: send a human into orbit, and do it before the Russians. And while it didn't succeed in the latter mission, Mercury did end up sending a series of men beyond Earth's confines. Their flights, though, were relatively brief. Alan Shepard, who made the U.S.'s first suborbital flight into space, spent a mere 15 minutes away from Earth that first time out; John Glenn, who made the first orbits of the planet for the U.S., had a nearly 5-hour flight (as did Malcolm Carpenter, who made another three orbits in 1962). 

Before NASA's Atlas 9 mission, the longest amount of time an American had spent in space had been a whopping 9 hours and 13 minutes -- a record set by Wally Schirra, who made six orbits of Earth for the Mercury program in October of 1962.

And then Cooper, the seventh member of the "Original Seven," came along. Gordo, for his part, spent a total of one day, 10 hours, 19 minutes, and 49 seconds in space, making 22 full orbits of the planet before splashing down in the Pacific on May 16, 1963. (His flight overall took 34 hours.) Over the course of his long voyage, Cooper had a dinner of "powdered roast beef mush" washed down with water. He captured mesmerizing pictures of the Earth below. He became the first American to sleep in space.

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Gordo Cooper, modeling a '60s-style spacesuit (NASA)

The story doesn't end there, though: Cooper also ran into some trouble. On his 19th orbit, the solo astronaut encountered a problem with the indicator light on the craft he named himself, Faith 7. On the 20th, he lost his attitude readings. On the 21st, a short-circuit occurred, leaving the tiny craft's automatic stabilization and control systems without electrical power.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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