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Oklahoma space pioneer's ashes to take flight



One of Oklahoma's space pioneers has a chance to return to space " even after he has passed from this life.

Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr. didn't have to wait for Oklahoma to build its own rocket. Instead, he became one of America's first seven astronauts back in the dawn of time (called the Sixties). You know, back when President Kennedy said we'd land on the moon in 10 years " back in those halcyon days when NASA really had rocket scientists who could take us somewhere.

"Gordo," as they called him in "The Right Stuff," was the real deal. Born in Shawnee in 1927, Cooper joined the Marines in World War II and then later piloted in the Air Force, joining the fledgling space program in 1959 as a test pilot.

On May 15, 1963, technicians bolted him into the single-seat Mercury 9 space capsule aboard an Atlas rocket, a launch vehicle meant to carry a bomb. These rockets had blown up on the launchpad, so the outcome was far from known. No small part of his mission was to see how far he could push the systems in the spaceship.

Well, he did. He shot into space and completed 22 orbits " higher, faster and farther than any human being had before, a record that lasted some years. He later flew with Charles "Pete" Conrad in Gemini 5, again setting the space endurance record: 190 hours.

But he didn't stop there. He came clean in 1985 on the subject of unidentified flying objects " admitting to probably some snickering in an address to the United Nations that he'd seen UFOs back in his earliest days of flying.

"I did have occasion in 1951 to have two days of observation of many flights of them, of different sizes flying in fighter formation, generally from west to east over Europe," Cooper reportedly said in the UN address. "They were at a higher altitude than we could reach with our jet fighters."

Cooper died in 2004. Well, on the 28th of this month, Cooper's ashes will blast into space from New Mexico aboard The Legacy Flight, along with the ashes of some 200 others, including "Beam Me Up, Scotty" James Doohan.

Cooper's wife, Suzan, told The Oklahoman that her husband would have loved the idea.

"He would have taken another flight into space if he could have. He loved to fly," she said.

Maybe he'll finally meet some of the only beings to out-fly him.

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