I Remember "Gordo"
by Ivor Dawson

You never forget where and when you’ve met a childhood hero. Gordon Cooper was one of my earliest heroes --and for the oddest of reasons. As an eight-year-old, I knew little of Cooper or any of the other newly named astronauts –I simply liked the name Gordon. I absolutely hated my own name and about the time the Mercury Seven were chosen, I found out that I was supposed to be named Gordon. Gordon, I thought, was a real cool name- one that suited my personality. Unfortunately, instead of getting a cool name, I was stuck with the name Ivor. I was told that my father changed his mind the last minute and named me after a friend –the Welch composer and actor, Ivor Novello. Imagine growing up in the East Bronx with the name Ivor. Prudently, I stayed off the streets. Many a night, safe in a third-floor walk-up, I would dream of becoming astronaut. It was then that I added the name Gordon Cooper to a short list of heroes –one that included only Fats Domino, “Alfalfa” and Lou Costello.

On June 15, 1998, Gordon Cooper came to visit Space Plex—the nation’s newest space museum. Space Plex was an experimental museum located in a shopping mall in LA’s San Fernando Valley. As Operations Director of Space Plex, it was my duty to personally conduct a tour of the facility to Gordon Cooper and his entourage. As a space enthusiast I had met several astronauts before and was never star struck. Meeting Cooper was going to be different. On his second visit to Space Plex, I got ‘Gordo’ to autograph my ancient (1962) paperback copy of “We Seven” --a book written by all seven original astronauts.

During his second visit to Space Plex, I had a surprise for Gordo. I revealed my ‘Cooper Dossier’ of news clippings culled from the pages of my hometown paper: the New York Daily News. One news story on Gordo’s first flight in 1963 showed his mother receiving a phone call from President Kennedy. This was a photo that he had lost and hadn’t seen in years. He asked me make him a copy. Gordo then had a surprise for me. He told me that wanted to work with Space Plex and help us in fundraising. I was in orbit--now we were going to be associates.

In the weeks that followed, I was in constant contact with Gordo either by phone or at his office adjacent to Van Nuys Airport. We planned a press conference and fleshed out his further involvement with Space Plex. .

An August morning meeting at Gordo’s officer was suddenly interrupted when every phone began ringing off the hook --all at once. As Gordo reached for one phone, he motioned to me to grab the others and take messages. Handling two phones, I found myself being inundated by the shear number of callers --now on hold --waiting to talk to Gordo. The callers were all from the press seeking comment on the death of Admiral Alan Shepard. Gordo, frail from a paralysis that affected his speech and movements, talked very deliberately to each caller. During a brief pause, it occurred to me that it was just he and I in his office to deal with the press and we needed help fast. .

Then it happened. Like a scene from the movie—The Right Stuff the press began to mass outside Gordo’s office. Like ‘root weevils’ or locusts emerging from the soil, the mass media seemed to appear from out of the woodwork. Gordo’s tiny office was soon swarming with TV cameras, cable and crewmen. Blinded and wilting under the heat of the TV lights. Gordo stoically continued on answering each and everyone’s question. Outside, the crew from NBC’s Today program jostled with print media for space on rickety stairs leading up to the office. A pecking order was established on the stairs in order to keep the peace. Inside, I could’ve sworn I heard the chirping of crickets during all the chaos. The craziness continued on for an hour before Gordo’s assistants arrived with needed relief.
And then, just as suddenly, the ‘locusts’ were gone.

In a show of thanks, Gordo gave me a copy of the patch that he designed for Gemini 8. The 1966 Gemini mission made him the first person to orbit the earth twice. He was very proud of that mission and the fact that he won a fight with NASA over the use of that patch. NASA execs frowned on personalized patches and Gordo’s Conestoga Wagon design was a personal salute to his pioneer heritage and spirit that he shared with his Gemini 8 crewmate Pete Conrad. He was also very candid about spotting UFOs in his pre-astronaut days. At one point he became so animated about this adventure that he jumped up and produced a copy of the National Enquirer article that detailed his UFO encounter. He then pulled out a copy of his resume for me to use in fundraising. It was the matter-of fact way he gave me the resume that really amazed me. Another astronaut might of thought more of their fame but not Gordo. He seemed to have no ego about his notoriety. Even though he was a true living legend, he knew that after thirty years only enthusiasts would remember who he was.

Days later, the Gordon Cooper press conference was cancelled when Space Plex lost their lease. Shortly thereafter, I created Traveling Space Museum and learned that Gordo was cutting back on his personal schedule.

Even as his health declined, Gordo recently was pleased to meet Traveling Space Museum protégé Justin Houchin and encouraged him in his quest to become the “First Teenager in Space.” Gordo loved “firsts” and his resume had many.

Ironically, another of my favorite people --the great Levon Helm, formerly of The Band, recites much of Gordo’s resume at the end of the movie the Right Stuff. Helm portrayed the character Jack Ridley and served as the movie’s narrator. Of Gordo’s first flight Helm regales, “On that glorious day…he was the last man to fly in space alone.” I thought of that line over and over when I heard that Gordo had passed away.

I was in Mojave Ca. when I heard of his passing. It was just hours after the X-Prize was won. On the day that Gordo died, a new era of space exploration would begin. Began by another who would fly in space alone

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Gordon Cooper and Dawson in front of Mercury Capsule replica and Redstone Rocket model.
Justin, Wally Funk and Gordo