Reviewed in the United States on February 22, 2002
Colonel Gordon Cooper is one of the Mercury Seven, the first group of American astronauts. A test pilot from Edwards Air Force base, he flew the last and longest of the pioneering Mercury missions, dubbed Faith 7, and later went into space a second time aboard Gemini 5. A maverick at heart, Cooper fell out of favour with some of the NASA higher-ups and left the agency after being denied command of a lunar landing mission.
His autobiography, Leap of Faith, is a surprising and somewhat schizoid read, mixing Cooper's space program experience with increasingly dubious episodes on UFO sightings and telepathy. The overall structure has a stitched-together feel to it, and the last third with Gordo charging off into the world of the paranormal seems to belong to another book entirely. The writing style throughout is average journalist fare - bland vocabulary, repeated words in one sentence -, but not too bad overall.
Cooper's account of the space program offers no startling insights or deep emotional truths; his added personal perspective is interesting enough, though; the actual narrations of the Faith 7 flight, photographing the Himalayas, manual re-entry and all, and the 8-day Gemini mission with Pete Conrad are quite captivating. There is very little in the way of technical detail, some nice stories about training and promotional voyages, the usual photographs, and that's it. All in all, Leap of Faith remains a superficial effort. Gordo's childhood and background, his career before NASA and his family life receive preciously little attention, serving mostly to produce anecdotes or, in the case of his Air Force years, UFO speculations. Disappointing, the more so in light of the following chapters.
When he's denied the chance to command an Apollo mission, Cooper leaves NASA in 1970. Some accounts claim that he was slacking off, that he carried his maverick attitude into training, while others say it was a political decision by astronaut chief Deke Slayton, who wanted to get his friend Al Shepard a flight (Leap of Faith, naturally, supports the latter point of view). It's interesting, in this regard, to compare Slayton's superb and carefully researched autobiography with Cooper's effort.
After retirement, Gordo embarks on a surreal journey of X-fileish proportions, minus the humour: after some time flight testing "saucers" build by a Salt Lake City businessman and UFO believer, he is contacted by a young woman who claims to have telepathic contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. Naturally, she describes these aliens - the "Universal Intelligence Consortium" - in such unimaginative and naively anthropocentric terms that it merits pity. But Gordo, being attracted to her and all, obviously reasons differently. And so the two spend their time together reconstructing obscure Tesla inventions, until she tells Cooper that he's been selected to take a spin aboard a real alien spaceship. Alas, the mission is scrubbed at the last minute, seemingly due to political struggles between various extraterrestrial factions. Too bad.
At least Gordo is portrayed with a last holdout of scepticism throughout these strange proceedings, and undecided in the end. Ultimately, Leap of Faith merely repeats some of the popular conspiracy theories - Area 51 is there, too -, content to raise supposedly unanswered questions. Still, the example it gives of uncritical thinking and silly (often self-contradictory) logic is troubling. The epilogue, with Cooper talking about the present-day space program and a farewell to his buddy, the late Pete Conrad, comes as quite a relief.
The more so since the book is riddled with a myriad of inaccuracies. To name but two of the most obvious examples, the Saturn V rocket's first stage has five engines, not eight. And Russian Cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev, who went into space but once aboard Voskhod 2, was hardly "a veteran of two spaceflights" when Cooper met him in 1965. As aviation books go, it doesn't get any sloppier than this. Regarding the UFO mutterings, they are rendered even more outlandish - if it were needed - alongside capital mistakes like these.
Natural, perhaps, considering the lesser "conspiracy" fare on the market, although one must feel disappointed to find such yarn in a book carrying the name of Gordon Cooper. The benefit of doubt, mercifully, suggests that a certain Mr. Henderson did the actual writing, but the fact that Gordo obviously didn't bother much with proof-reading is distinctly unimpressive just as well. Especially when working with an author who is truly at odds with looking up basic technical and biographical data. Maverick or not, if you do an autobiography, you might as well do it right.
Still, the okay passages on the space program, with Gordo's refreshing "strap-it-on-and-go" attitude shining through, prevent Leap of Faith from becoming a total disaster. When read like an adventure novel - "The Right Stuff" meets "X-Files" -, the book has some good moments, and the "owns all"-space buff will merrily add it to his collection despite the flaws (he knows where else to find the accurate data, anyway). A less specialised (or less nutty) reader, though, will find the Cooper / Henderson cooperation quite unsatisfying.