Link #120: Cooper Landed a Spaceship Without Modern Equipment!

Recovery of Sigma 7 space capsule by USS Kearsarge October 1962


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Link #120: Cooper Landed a Spaceship Without Modern Equipment!

Recovery of Sigma 7 space capsule by USS Kearsarge October 1962
Image credit: US Navy/CC0 Public Domain Image.

Mankind has always had a close relationship with its ships. The Titanic was a ship that was first lauded as one of the greatest human achievements. As mentioned in our previous post, the Titanic consumed more than 600 tonnes of coal and produced more than 100 tonnes of ash every day.

However, the Titanic’s iceberg disaster quickly became one of the biggest disasters involving a manmade vehicle in human history. In contrast, NASA’s Project Mercury wasn’t considered to be one of the best achievements of humanity. Still, when its astronaut managed to land the ship without any modern equipment, it became one of the best stories of human excellence involving a manmade object.

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What Happened to the Project Mercury Ship ‘Faith’?

Gordon Cooper Jr.
Mercury 9 Crewman: Cooper. Image credit: PD-USGOV-NASA/CC0 Public Domain Image.

Project Mercury involved seven astronauts. It was the first American human spaceflight program. Project Mercury was initiated at the beginning of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. It was also the first program of NASA which was established in response to the Soviet Union’s success with Sputnik 1.

Throughout the early years of the space race and Project Mercury, the Soviet Space program was ahead of the American space program. The Soviet cosmonauts were spending more time in space than the American astronauts.

This put pressure on the American administration and they tried to push the boundaries of Project Mercury. The final Project Mercury mission was called Mercury-Atlas 9. Its target was to match the Soviet achievement of a manned spaceflight that lasted for at least one day.

The chosen astronaut for the Mercury-Atlas 9 was Gordon Cooper who named his ship ‘Faith’. By the 30th hour and 19th orbit, the Project Mercury ship Faith lost key electrical systems like automatic control and stabilisation.

How Did Gordon Cooper Land the Ship Without Modern Equipment?

Cooper Egressing Faith 7
Cooper being removed from the capsule Faith 7. Image credit: NASA/CC0 Public Domain Image.

When Faith’s automatic systems malfunctioned, ground control became blind to its movements and situation. Fortunately, audio communications were still up and running. This meant that Cooper would have to rely on his brain to manually land the ship.

With a little help from the ground crew, Cooper formulated a plan to manually land the spaceship. At this time, Cooper also noticed that carbon dioxide levels in his ship were rising, but remained cool.

Cooper used his understanding of the position of the stars and his view of the horizon to navigate his ship. He drew lines on his ship’s front window to define his positioning in the descent.

At the same time, Cooper needed to retrofire his retrorockets manually too. However, he needed to time how long he should fire the retrorockets. Since the clock on the spaceship had also stopped working, this could have been a problem if Cooper wasn’t wearing a wristwatch.

You should know that astronauts weren’t required to wear wristwatches by NASA rules at this time, but Cooper decided to wear one on each wrist anyway before the flight. One watch was digital and accurate while the other was analogue and not accurate.

Cooper managed to manually bring down his spaceship without incident. In fact, this was the most accurate landing of a spaceship in the fledgling history of NASA.

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