Faith 7 was the last flight of Project Mercury, NASA’s first attempt at crewed spaceflight. It was flown by Gordo Cooper, the astronaut probably best known for Dennis Quaid’s somewhat exaggerated portrayal of him in the 1983 film The Right Stuff.
Despite being arguably the most dramatic flight of the bunch, Faith 7’s only appearance in the film was its launch.
Cooper faced a cascade of problems unlike any NASA had yet seen, and ultimately proved just how right NASA had been in choosing test pilots as its astronauts in those earliest days of spaceflight.
Cooper, however, was nearly booted off the flight at the last moment.
He found out the day before he was scheduled to launch that NASA had made some changes to his spacesuit without consulting him. He wasn’t happy. However, rather than just going to talk to his superiors, Cooper decided to express his frustration in a more unorthodox way.
He borrowed one of the F-106 fighter jets that NASA gave the astronauts to train in. Bearing in mind that the airspace surrounding Cape Canaveral was heavily restricted, he proceeded to fly it at high speed right past NASA’s administration building only a few dozen feet off the ground. He was going so low that there were people on the second floor who were able to look down on the plane as it went past.
Two of NASA’s most influential figures – Chris Kraft and Walt Williams – were in the building at the time. Needless to say, they weren’t best pleased. They pressed for Cooper to be removed from the flight and replaced with his back-up, but thanks to an intervention from Deke Slayton, another Mercury astronaut who was the main intermediary between the astronauts and NASA management, it was decided Cooper could keep the mission.
Come the morning of launch, there was a built-in hold in the countdown. Sat on top of a fully fuelled rocket, Cooper took advantage of the opportunity to fall asleep.
At 8:04 AM, and now very much awake, Cooper and Faith 7 left the launchpad and headed for space.
Things progressed smoothly at first. Cooper made the first television transmission from a crewed American spacecraft and, because his was the first Mercury flight to last more than 24 hours, became the first American to sleep in space.
He also became the first non-smoking astronaut in space. He consumed less oxygen than predicted as a result, prompting CapCom Alan Shepard to say jokingly to him, “You can stop holding your breath and use some oxygen if you like!”
Cooper’s nineteenth orbit of Earth was where things started going downhill.
The first symptom of what would later be diagnosed as a short circuit in the spacecraft’s wiring was a light illuminating in the cockpit that falsely told Cooper he was re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
A cascade of problems followed. Cooper lost his attitude readings, meaning he couldn’t tell from his instruments which way the spacecraft was pointing. The attitude gyros, which held the spacecraft in the correct position for re-entry, stopped working. The cockpit clock failed. CO2 levels started to rise. The spacecraft’s inverters, which provided electrical current for the re-entry control system, gave up the ghost, as did their backups.
“Things are beginning to stack up a little,” was Cooper’s understatement to Mission Control.
Plans were hurriedly drawn up to have Cooper come back to Earth as soon as possible. He was told to take a dextroamphetamine pill, a stimulant that would help keep him alert.
Getting Faith 7 back through the atmosphere with virtually all of the necessary systems offline – though thankfully with the radio still working – was no mean feat.
To make sure he re-entered at precisely the right angle, Cooper was forced to draw lines on the spacecraft’s window to make sure he stayed in the right position relative to a handful of specific constellations that he could see. He also had to use his wristwatch to time how long to fire his retrorockets.
If he came in too steep, the spacecraft’s heatshield wouldn’t be able to cope. Cooper would be incinerated. Too shallow, and he would bounce off the atmosphere like a stone on water and go skipping back out into space again, with limited fuel reserves meaning he wouldn’t get to make another attempt.
The entire way down, Cooper made small adjustments with the attitude rockets based on nothing but those lines on the window. NASA had never attempted a manual re-entry before but, as Cooper dryly said, “I’m looking for lots of experience on this flight.”
Despite everything, even having to deploy the parachute manually, Cooper managed to land just four miles from his recovery vessel, the USS Kearsage. It was closer than all of his Mercury colleagues had managed with all of their spacecraft’s systems intact.
Once extracted from Faith 7, Cooper was slightly dizzy but otherwise perfectly fine.
Faith 7’s total mission duration was 34 hours, 3 minutes and 30 seconds, longer than all of NASA’s previous crewed spaceflights combined.