To many UFO enthusiasts, Gordon
Cooper is a legend. An original
Mercury astronaut, he was one of
those clear-eyed, ambitious,
optimistic, straight-arrow Americans
with "the right stuff," as Tom
Wolfe put it -- men who made the U.S. space program synonymous
with success and national pride. But
unlike many of his fellow astro-
nauts, Gordon Cooper has said for
decades that he believes at least
some UFOs are alien spacecraft.
With the assistance of a mutual friend, I met Gordon
Cooper at his
office in Van Nuys, California on February 8.
He isn't as big as I expected, neither in height nor
build. (In retrospect,
it occurs to me that large size would be no asset in the space program.)
At 68, he is balding. He still has the signature grin, toothy and slightly
cock-eyed. He has sharp blue eyes. He speaks quietly, clearly and
concisely. We simply pulled up a few chairs around his desk and started
I said I had enjoyed Dennis Quaid's film portrayal of
Cooper in "The
Right Stuff," and asked how he had liked it. "I liked it. He did a pretty
good job," he said. "So did you think of yourself as a hotdog back then?"
I asked. "Yes, I guess so."
We talked about the space
program. He had gone up in
Mercury 9 in May, 1963
and completed 22 orbits, an
American record at the time.
Then in August, 1965, he went
up again in Gemini 5 with Charles
"Pete" Conrad and stayed aloft
eight days, going 122 orbits, a
world record. They had purposely
set out to get ahead of the Soviets
in at least a symbolic way. It was
a turning point in the space race.
We were already headed for
the moon. We got there. The
Soviets never did.
Cooper was going to go to the moon, but Alan Shepherd
and then the Apollo program was cancelled. Cooper was going to go
to Mars, too. Few Americans even know that NASA was well along
on plans for a manned Mars mission, with a landing projected for 1981.
Cooper was in line for commander of the mission. It would have been a
nuclear powered spacecraft, assembled in earth orbit after parts were
sent aloft on a series of Saturn 1-Bs. The nuclear engines were ready,
Cooper said. A lot of the spacecraft was ready. They were still working
on the lander and then that program was cancelled, too.
"By Senator Proxmire. The worst enemy America ever had."
I asked about his famous UFO sighting. It was in 1951
Germany. He and several other pilots were flying F-86 jets --
"We were super-sonic, barely," he said -- when they looked up
and saw what appeared to be a large group of "double lenticular
shaped" aircraft, classic flying saucers, flying in formation.
He said these craft were much higher than his plane could go,
though he couldn't tell how high. They were going faster too,
but he couldn't tell how much faster. Over the next two or three
days, he and other pilots saw "several hundred" of these craft.
Cooper said they flew formation maneuvers very much like his own
squadron would fly. He and the other witnesses were uniformly
convinced they were seeing a technology that wasn't human.
Cooper and his fellow pilots reported the sightings
to their superiors.
In due course, the official explanation was relayed back down.
"High flying seed pods."
Though the UFO subject frequently must endure strange
of official denial and obfuscation, this offering of "seed pods" in
answer to Cooper's sighting struck me as one of the wackiest I've
heard. "You knew this was crazy," I said to him. "How could you
put up with it?"
His answer was simple. "I was in the Air Force. I wanted to fly."
But Cooper had already made up his own mind that UFOs
represented visitations from elsewhere, and in time he made his
position clear. He wrote a letter to the United Nations in 1978.
It said, in part, "I do believe UFOs exist and that the truly
unexplained ones are from some other technically advanced
civilization... I believe that these extraterrestrial vehicles and
their crews are visiting this planet from other planets, which are
obviously a little more advanced than we are here on earth... I
feel that we need to have a top-level, coordinated program to
scientifically collect and analyze data from all over the earth
concerning any type of encounter, and to determine how best to
interface with these visitors in a friendly fashion."
Cooper was convinced by 1978 that these visitors, most
them at least, were friendly. He holds to that view today.