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).