Gordon Cooper is one-seventh of the answer to a trivia question: Can you name the original astronauts? He orbited the earth 22 times on the last of the Mercury flights, ending May 16, 1963. All went smoothly until the autopilot failed, forcing Cooper to take over the manual controls. He guided his Faith 7 craft down perfectly, landing “right on the old bazoo.”
Cooper stayed with NASA until 1970 and then tried life as a treasure hunter, archeologist, car racer and land developer. In 1972 he divorced his wife of 24 years (their two daughters are married and Cooper has four grandchildren), and two months later he married Susan Taylor, a model 18 years his junior. After the opening of a popular attraction called Space Mountain at Florida’s Disney World in 1975, Disneyland in California began working on a similar ride, and Cooper, a Disney vice-president, was called in to help.
“Space Mountain is about as close as you can safely get to actually being in space,” claims Cooper, now 50. Covering almost two acres, it is basically an indoor roller coaster, complete with lift-off, 2½ Gs on the curves, “meteor showers,” blinking stars and a sensation of weightlessness. Since it opened in May, some 28,000 people per day have spent 90¢ for the three-minute, 32-mph experience.
Cooper was so pleased with Space Mountain that he invited his fellow astronauts to Disneyland for their annual reunion. The six survivors and their families attended—plus the widow and children of Gus Grissom, who died in the 1967 Apollo I fire. Professional response was thumbs up—the astronauts went for several spins.
Cooper and his wife live in a 50-year-old restored Spanish house in Encino. He’s doing most of the work himself in addition to designing and installing solar heating panels. Cooper also continues as Disney’s most famous “imagineer,” dreaming up more park attractions for the future. “I’m not the kind of person who lives in the past,” says Cooper. “Being an astronaut was what I wanted to do—it was great. What I’m doing now is great too. The best years are always coming.”