Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr., was born on March 6, 1927, in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He attended primary and secondary schools in Shawnee and Murray, Kentucky, where he graduated from high school in 1945.
The Army and Navy flying schools were not taking any candidates the year he graduated from high school so he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. He left for Parris Island as soon as he graduated. World War II ended, however, before he could get into combat. He was assigned then to the Naval Academy Preparatory School and was an alternate for an appointment to Annapolis. The man who was the primary appointee made the grade so Cooper was reassigned in the Marines on guard duty in Washington, D.C. He was serving with the Presidential Honor Guard in Washington when he was released from duty along with other Marine reservists.
After his discharge from the Marine Corps, he went to Hawaii to live with his parents. He attended the University of Hawaii where he received a commission in the U.S. Army ROTC. He transferred to the Air Force and was called to active duty for flight training on the main continent in 1949. He underwent pilot training at Perrin Air Force Base, Texas, and Williams AFB, Ariz. In 1950, after he received his wings, he was assigned to the 86th Fighter Bomber Group at Landstuhl, West Germany, where he flew F-84 and F-8 jets for four years. He later became flight commander of the 525th Fighter Bomber Squadron. While in Germany he attended the European extension of the University of Maryland night school for a year.
When he returned to the U.S. in 1954 he attended the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, for two years. He graduated there with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering in August 1956, and was assigned to Edwards AFB, Calif., where he attended the Experimental Flight Test School until 1957. When he graduated from the school he was assigned to the Fighter Section of the Flight Test Engineering Division at Edwards as a project engineer and test pilot at the Air Force Flight Test Center. There he worked on the F-102A and the F-106B test programs. He corrected several deficiencies in the F-106, saving the Air Force a great deal of money.
While at Edwards he read an announcement that the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis had been awarded a contract to build a space capsule. This really interested Cooper. He soon found out the Project Mercury was interested in him, too. A few days after he read the announcement about the new capsule, he was called to Washington, D.C. for a briefing. NASA engineers spent an entire morning giving the 110 invited military test pilots a technical rundown on Project Mercury and what the astronauts' part in it would be. The pilots were asked later in the day to give their reactions to what they had seen and heard, and to indicate whether or not they were interested. Cooper replied that he was definitely sold on the program and that he very much wanted to become an astronaut.
Cooper's first flight began on May 15, 1963, when he was launched as the pilot of MA-9, the last Mercury mission. Cooper, in his Faith 7 capsule, orbited the Earth 22 times and logged more time in space than all five previous Mercury astronauts combined. His primary objectives were to evaluate the effects of a lengthier stay in space on man and to verify man as the primary spacecraft system. During the mission, he became the first American astronaut to sleep in orbit. His mission lasted more than 34 hours, during which he completed 22 orbits and traveled 546,167 miles at 17,547 miles per hour.
Two years later, Cooper was launched as the commander of Gemini GT-5 with Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., as the pilot, making Cooper the first person to make a second orbital flight. The eight-day mission, began on Aug. 21, 1965, and proved that astronauts could survive in space for the time it took spacecraft to go from the Earth to the moon and back. Cooper and Conrad also evaluated the performance of rendezvous guidance and navigation systems using a rendezvous evaluation pod. The mission was successful except for a rendezvous failure due to a fuel-cell heater problem.
During his two spaceflights, Cooper logged 225 hours, 15 minutes and 3 seconds. He served as the backup commander for Gemini GT-12, the last Gemini mission, and as the backup commander for Apollo 10.
Following the conclusion of the Gemini program, Cooper was assigned to important tasks in the Apollo and Apollo Applications Program (which later evolved into the Skylab program), then crew operations chief for Skylab. He resigned from NASA and the Air Force, at the rank of colonel, on July 31, 1970.