Reviewed in the United States on November 26, 2005
This work has produced a rather hefty array of responses from Amazon readers, many of whom are stridently opposed to Cooper's career-long pursuit of the secrets of UFO's and other mysterious new technologies, and others who see in the Mercury astronaut a hero of what now appears to be a cause losing steam. Our focus here is on the book, however. For as several reviewers have correctly observed, this is a tale of two Gordo's, one battling the unknowns of space, and the other battling the knowns of the NASA/military industrial complex.
Unfortunately, neither tale is particularly compelling. The account of the astronaut's career, coming as it did in 2000, was the tail of the dog in a string of early astronaut autobiographies as the pioneers rushed to beat the Grim Reaper with their version of events. As to the second, Cooper's extensive research and observations about UFO's are not as deliciously crazy as some would like us to believe, either. In fact, some of his conjectures about alien propulsion systems and the like are rather fascinating to the layman.
While Cooper has been a busy man since leaving NASA thirty-something years ago, it would seem that something he neglected to do is read what others around the space program were writing in those three decades, and specifically what they were writing about him. One Amazon reader in this sequence of reviews reports to having collected 150 such volumes himself. The general consensus of post-Apollo writers seems to be that Cooper's years with NASA are somewhat enigmatic. One of the original seven Mercury astronauts, he was the last one to fly, a statement of sorts about how the NASA hierarchy regarded him. [Oddly, NASA's "the best shall be first" policy in Mercury resulted in Cooper's complex and spectacularly successful Faith 7 two-day marathon, the last flight in the Mercury series.]
Cooper and Pete Conrad would fly the Gemini 5 mission in the summer of 1965 to test fuel cells, endurance and, as the author observes wryly, defecation technique. But after Gemini 5, Cooper becomes an invisible man. He was designated to the back-up crews of three future flights, the last of which, Apollo 13, he turned down as a political slight.
So why did the hero of Faith 7 fall out of favor in succeeding years? This is the question most readers today would probably bring to the book. The author himself never does soul-searching about his own role in why his space career stalled. Instead he boils his dilemma down to two words: Al Shepard. Cooper believes that Shepard, embittered by his health problems and eager to get back into rotation, used his influence with Deke Slayton, then assigning crews, to keep the Mercury hero under the radar. Cooper's distrust of Shepard appears to date back to his Faith 7 days in 1963 when he asked Wally Schirra to privately tail Shepard, then Cooper's back-up, during pre-flight training.
Cooper cites the Shepard/Slayton cabal as symptomatic of the increasing bureaucracy of NASA, the military, and the federal government. He notes, for example, his complaint in a conversation with President Lyndon Johnson that his photography from Gemini 5 had been seized and classified. Johnson coolly informed him that he, the president, had given the order. It is important for the reader to observe keenly Cooper's misadventures with government entities, for they are of one weave with his later criticisms of government cover-up in the reporting of UFO sightings and general hostility toward individuals like himself at the outer margins of technology, from this world or another.
If Cooper feels that he was blackballed by Shepard and Slayton, what can we say of astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, Gene Cernan, and Pete Conrad, to name several whose careers thrived under the Slaton-Shepard regime? Lovell, in fact, flew four space missions [two Gemini, two Apollo] after Cooper's Gemini 5, and he is living proof that the "evil duo" was not completely adverse to the emergence of "stars" in the astronaut corps.
No, the answer to Cooper's dilemma is more personal, and probably reflects nagging doubts in NASA about Cooper's manageability and application to the growing complexity of the space business. In this Cooper was hardly alone. Nearly all of the original Mercury Seven had difficulty adjusting to a bigger astronaut corps, greater bureaucracy, public relations, politics, and the general idea of "teamwork." It is no accident that Schirra and Shepard, the two Mercury veterans to fly Apollo, each chose all rookie teams. [Walt Cunningham of Apollo 7 would refer to Schirra as "the cock of the walk."] Schirra himself found the new NASA so discomfiting that he passed on a sure moon landing assignment and retired.
Because Cooper does not really address his own career difficulties with insight, the charges of some historians that Cooper did not train or apply himself sufficiently will still be left to hang out there in the foreseeable future. This is regrettable, because Cooper, like his colleague Scotty Carpenter, was one of the true multidimensional human beings of the early space program. And I give him a great deal of credit for his respect of John Glenn and others for whom timing and luck made them national heroes.
Given Cooper's colorful space career, his subsequent employment by Disney, among others, comes as little surprise. The intrepid pilot of Faith 7 became--how can I put it?--a magnet for scientific entrepreneurs, some of remarkable brilliance, some eccentrics, and some undecipherable. Cooper apparently never lost touch with his astronaut friends, but he certainly picked up new ones along the way, including the mysterious clairvoyant and purveyor of character Valerie Ransone who seems to have preoccupied his personal and scientific attentions for a period in the 1980's. Perhaps if he had met Valerie in 1965, it would be Gordon Cooper making that giant leap for mankind.