WASHINGTON -- One of America's first astronauts claims that the government has withheld information that alien spacecraft have visited Earth.
Leroy Gordon "Gordo" Cooper Jr. says the government has "swept under the rug" the truth about unidentified flying objects or UFOs.
NASA Mercury astronaut, Gordon Cooper, flew a single-seat capsule in 1963.
"Each administration has probably tried to figure out how, with the least embarrassment, they could confess to this whole thing," he said at a recent appearance in Washington to promote his new book, Leap of Faith: An Astronaut's Journey in the Unknown (HarperCollins Publishers, $25).
"They need to clean the slate about what has been going on or has not been going on," he said.
In space for a day
Cooper, 72, was one of the original Mercury Seven picked by NASA in 1959.
The last of the Mercury astronauts to be lofted into space, Cooper was blasted into orbit atop an Atlas rocket in May 1963. He circled Earth for 22 orbits in his Faith 7 capsule, becoming the first American to stay in space for a day.
Cooper returned to space in August 1965 with the late Pete Conrad on the Gemini 5 mission. After retiring from NASA in 1970, he went to work for Disney as a vice president for research and development. He later worked as a high-tech consultant and aircraft designer.
Since 1989, he has been a partner in an aeronautical design firm in Van Nuys, California. Now a retired Air Force colonel living in Los Angeles, he is campaigning to have the government open the books on UFO research.
Charges of cover-up
"There certainly have been too many people, very qualified people and qualified groups of people, that have had interface of one type or another with extraterrestrial craft or beings," Cooper said. "To really deny that something is going on and deny that they definitely existwe need a little more explanation."
Government officials say there is nothing to cover up about UFOs.
"Everybody is entitled to their beliefs and opinions based on their own readings and experiences," said Don Savage, a NASA spokesman. "The biggest problem with UFOs is that it's a difficult area to bring the scientific process into any kind of study."
UFO sightings, Savage said, "are transient events. They are not repeatable, so they are not subject to scientific study per se. It's something that we don't have any research into here at NASA."
But Cooper is undeterred in his UFO beliefs.
In his book, written with Bruce Henderson, Cooper tells how he saw his first UFO over Europe in 1951. An Air Force pilot in West Germany, Cooper and his squadron mates were scrambled in their F-86 Sabre jets to intercept what appeared to be several metallic silver and saucer-shaped craft.
Cooper also describes an incident at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in which he once looked at film of a crashed UFO in the American Southwest taken in the late 1950s. That film, he writes, was whisked away to the Pentagon never to be seen or heard of again.
Throughout the book, the former astronaut argues for the government to open up its files and come clean about alien visitations.
So convinced is Cooper that UFOs deserve serious study that he once testified before the United Nations in 1978 on the topic. His hope was that the U.N. would become a central repository for accounts of UFO sightings.
"I made the effort to get the U.N. to pick up the ball," Cooper said at the book signing. "They thought it was a great idea, but they never did anything about it."
The "Right Stuff" on the line
Still spry and witty, Cooper enjoys talking about his own jaunts into space.
"In the early days, there was so little that we knew about space. Every day was an 'oh, gee-whiz day' or big adventure," he said.
Recalling his circuits around Earth in his Mercury capsule, Cooper said that the spacecraft's cooling system developed problems. That in turn caused the electrical systems to fail one by one.
Where other pilots might have panicked, Cooper coolly took control of his capsule and flew it manually. All his maneuvers to drop out of orbit for a splashdown in the ocean were done with seat-of-the-pants flying -- a far-cry from the automated cockpit procedures of today's computerized space shuttle.
Recovery crews greet a smiling Gordon Cooper after his do-it-yourself landing.
Cooper used his knowledge of star patterns and Earth's horizon to orient his tiny spacecraft for reentry into the atmosphere. For good measure, he had lines scribbled on his window to make sure he was positioned properly before firing his reentry rockets.
"So I used my wrist watch for time, my eyeballs out the window for attitude. Then I fired my retrorockets at the right time and landed right by the carrier," Cooper said, matter-of-factly.
Asked who was the best pilot among the Mercury astronauts, Cooper thrilled his listeners by reciting the line spoken by Dennis Quaid, who played Cooper in the movie The Right Stuff.
"You're looking at him," Cooper said, flashing a grin.
Holding out for Mars
Cooper is ready to leave Earth again, at the drop of a space helmet.
"I told the NASA administrator (Dan Goldin) that when I was John Glenn's age, I wanted to take another flight," he said with a smile.
"But the flight I want is to be put on [is] the Mars mission. I hope to hang in there for it."