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The loss of Gordon Cooper

Oct 19, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

He and the other astronauts were the heroes of my youth.

They were the heroes of my youth. Even the Marvel and DC comics I collected had advertisements in the back with cheesy claims of becoming "Astronaut Tough." To a kid of the 1960s, there weren't many people more engaging than an American astronaut.

I'm sure the passing of Gordon Cooper this past week had a similar effect on many men in my age group. He was one of the magical group of men known as the Mercury Seven. All of these men were former combat or test pilots, and they represented the best America could offer. They rode atop rockets in small craft known as Friendship 7, Aurora 7 and in Cooper's case, Faith 7.

As a 4-year old I watched the sky to the north of our duplex at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico on an early summer day back in 1961 hoping to get a glimpse of Alan Shepard's parachute as Freedom 7 re-entered Earth's atmosphere. My mom told me he might land just off the coast, and even at that young age I was mesmerized by the thought of space travel.

Shepard did land north of the island that day -- but about 800 miles north and well out of sight.

Growing up on an air base filled with Cold War-era fighters, bombers and transports lent itself to fixation with space flight.

By 1963 my dad was stationed at Blytheville Air Force Base in the northeast corner of Arkansas, and our old black-and-white television set brought images of the Mercury and Gemini space flights. I spent many a sleepy morning enduring seemingly endless delays waiting for the launch.

A few years passed and my upper elementary and junior high years were spent in Fairfield and Rancho Cordova, California at Travis and Mather Air Force Bases.

As a fourth-grade student in 1967 the launch-pad fire that killed Grissom, White and Chaffee was a defining moment. Being a bit too young to fathom the assassination of President Kennedy four years earlier, the deaths of these three men, particularly Gus Grissom, whose face adorned features and advertisements in many of the 10-cent comics I purchased each week was profound. Astronauts were mortal after all.

We spent Christmas of 1968 in Riverton, and I listened to Borman, Lovell and Anders as they orbited the moon, reading from the New Testament on Christmas Eve a quarter-million miles from Earth.

The following summer I sat alone in my grandpa's cabin watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on a hot July day.

The space race was very real to me, and I shared that passion with two cousins in California. All of us ended up in the computer field after dabbling in other careers but it never turned out the way it was portrayed on "Star Trek," "Time Tunnel" and "Lost in Space."

The future wasn't nearly as exciting when it arrived. We thought we'd be working on mainframes that calculated the orbits of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn or helped design spacecraft.

If I had known that so much of my time would be spent repairing printers, preparing useless government reports, and finding ways of keeping teenagers off pornographic websites while at school, I doubt if science, math and, ultimately, computer science would have held the same thrill.

My final years in Rancho Cordova allowed me to watch the "Super Guppy" load and fly off with the third stage of the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo astronauts to the moon. A nearby McDonnell Douglas plant built these behemoths, and sometimes in the middle of the night they would fire a static test that would wake up everyone within 10 miles. Loading this huge, empty shell into the hinged nose of the "Guppy" and watching the four-engine, propeller-driven aircraft lumber into flight on its path to southern Florida was a memorable sight.

Occasionally rockets would fly over our neighborhood. The local news stations always reported UFO sightings and complaints from adults who didn't know what was going on.

We true believers knew it was just a rocket sent up from Vandenberg Air Force Base a few hundred miles away. These rockets were the ones that launched America's satellites that orbited pole to pole rather than around the equator.

Living on an air base gave enterprising teenagers a chance to witness a lot of technology. Just before we left in 1971, I was able to meet the crew of Apollo 10. They didn't say much, but they didn't have to. They were astronauts, the gods of my youth.

Now, perhaps the most famous astronaut, John Glenn, is the only living member of the original Mercury 7.

He is 92 years old.

It's a mark of the passage of time to this aging space junky. Mythic figures, in the form of heroes such as these will never come again in our scandal-hunting modern era.

You don't hear much about NASA anymore, but all you have to do is look up on a clear, moonless night and you can almost hear the launch sequence from two generations ago.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator. He farms in rural Riverton.

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