Gordon Cooper Jr. was a brave and skilled astronaut – almost the stereotype of an all-American good guy. But on one of his missions for NASA he actually discovered something extraordinary. What’s more he’d made the discovery in a clandestine manner. In fact, it wasn’t until well after his death in 2004 that the story finally came out. And then a marine treasure hunter was able to use the results of Cooper’s activities in a remarkable way.
We’ll get back to Cooper’s extra-curricular activities in space shortly but first let’s learn more about Leroy Gordon “Gordo” Cooper Jr. Well, he was born in 1927 in Shawnee, Oklahoma. And his father, Leroy Gordon Cooper Sr. had served with the U.S. Navy in WWI. But afterwards he became a pilot with the Oklahoma National Guard.
During the Second World War Cooper Sr. served in the Pacific and joined the U.S. Air Force in 1947. Interestingly, this was the same year it was formed, but he retired later in 1957 at the rank of colonel. So you could say that flying was in Cooper Jr.’s blood. Indeed, Cooper was only seven or eight when his dad gave him a turn on the controls of a plane.
In fact, the young Cooper’s parents owned a light aircraft, a Command-Aire biplane, and the kid was already flying it solo. Unofficially, he was doing this by the age of 12 – officially – he got his pilot’s license at 16. So when he completed high school in 1945, with his dad’s military background, you might’ve expected him to be odds on.
But there were no places available in Navy or Army flying schools so he joined the U.S Marine Corps. And he went into training straight away, leaving for France soon after. However, disappointingly, Cooper never did see active service in WWII as it concluded soon after he was posted.
After a spell of guard duty in Washington D.C., the Marine Corps gave Cooper an honorable discharge in 1946. And he then moved to Hawaii where he lived with his parents and enrolled at the University. But flying was still high on his agenda, and he bought a Piper Cub plane. Then, he met Trudy Olson at the local flying club, and they married in 1947.
And Cooper continued military pursuits at university by joining the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Then in June 1949, he joined the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. From there he transferred to the U.S. Air Force months later, before taking flight training at various air bases. Actually, these included Texas and Arizona.
After completing his training, Cooper’s first round of duty came in 1950 when he was posted to West Germany. There, he spent four years piloting F-84 Thunderjets and F-86 Sabres, reaching the rank of flight commander. Returning to the U.S. in 1954, he enrolled at the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) in Ohio.
At the AFIT, Cooper nearly scotched his future career as an astronaut, or anything else for that matter. Indeed, for he narrowly escaped what could easily have been a fatal accident. Alongside his good friend Gus Grissom, Cooper was taking off in a Lockheed T-33 in 1956 when it suffered power loss.
Shockingly, the undercarriage came off too, and the plane careered 2,000 feet down the runway before going up in flames. Somehow, though, the two pilots escaped from the wreckage unharmed. After that near catastrophe, Cooper succeeded in graduating from AFIT with a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering in 1956.
Cooper’s next move was to Edwards Air Force Base in California. There, he took a course at the USAF (U.S. Air Force) Experimental Flight Test School. After another successful graduation he was assigned to the Flight Test Engineering Division at the same base. Here, he was employed as a project manager and test pilot.
Now, Cooper’s role at the division was to put the F-102A Delta Dagger and F-106B Delta Dart jet fighters through their paces. While there, Cooper suggested several modifications to the Delta Dart which produced significant savings for the air force. Furthermore, he piloted a range of other jets and got 2,000 hours of flight time under his belt.
But at the beginning of 1959, an ambiguous command came through. For Cooper was ordered to Washington D.C., with no reason provided. However, it seems his commanding officer, Major General Marcus F. Cooper – not a relation – had got wind of it. Yes, he’d spotted an announcement in the press that the McDonnell Aircraft company had a contract to build a space capsule.
And Major General Cooper advised the young pilot to have nothing to do with space travel, advice that Cooper eventually ignored. Arriving in Washington, he soon learned that his commanding officer had been right all along. For he attended a briefing by the newly formed space agency, NASA, where Project Mercury was unveiled. And astonishingly, this project was America’s plan for its first manned space flight.
As you might already know, there was a certain urgency to Project Mercury. Because it was the era of the Cold War when the Soviet Union faced off against the U.S. and the West. And therefore, the space race had become a key battle between the two blocs. That’s right, because America had already been shocked when the Soviets had stolen a march in the race in 1957. Then, they’d successfully launched the first unmanned spacecraft into orbit, Sputnik 1.
Manned space flight became the next battleground and the Soviets were first with that, too. Yes, the now famous Yuri Gagarin went into orbit in 1961 with Vostok 1. Meanwhile, Cooper was one of the 109 men who were shortlisted as potential astronauts for the U.S. And in 1959 he was chosen as one of seven successful applicants. In fact, at the age of 32, he was the youngest selected.
In the event, Cooper was not the first American in space. No, that honor went to Alan Shepard who made a sub-orbital flight aboard Mercury-Redstone 3 in May 1961. However, Cooper acted as the communications officer for that flight and was the reserve astronaut for the Mercury-Atlas 8 orbital flight. That flight, in October 1962, was the fifth American manned space mission.
Now, Cooper had to wait for a while to get his chance to be rocketed into space. But it finally came round in 1963 in the shape of the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission. By this time, Cooper was the last of the original seven Mercury astronauts to get a chance at space travel. In fact, some NASA staffers had expressed doubt about letting him take off at all, alleging he had poor judgment.
Despite misgivings, Cooper was confirmed as the astronaut to pilot the planned 27-hour long mission which would orbit Earth 18 times. In fact, Cooper ended up spending a little more than 34 hours in space after his May 1963 launch. That was the longest any of the Mercury astronauts had been in space at that point.
Incredibly, Faith 7, as the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission spacecraft was called, covered 546,167 miles at an average speed of 17,547 mph. Cooper also had another first to his name – he was the first American to sleep during a mission. Actually, he was asleep for over seven hours, though he later noted that he had no dreams.
But Cooper’s mission was far from incident-free. A power blackout hit Faith 7 on its nineteenth orbit, causing carbon dioxide levels and the temperature to spike inside. So Cooper was forced to take manual control of the spaceship – and to navigate by the stars and his wristwatch. Incredibly, Cooper was able to land just 7,000 yards from the aircraft carrier that was to pick him up.
On Cooper’s next mission, in August 1965, he was partnered by Pete Conrad who was making his first space flight. And this was a Project Gemini flight, which set a new record for the length of time in space of 191 hours. By doing so, they demonstrated that astronauts could remain in space for the time it takes to voyage to the moon.
Indeed, lasting just under eight days – with medical tests performed in-flight – provided proof that the Moon was doable. In fact, the Apollo 12 mission would later see Conrad become the third man to walk on the Moon. That aside, due to fairly routine jobs on board the Gemini, Conrad complained that he hadn’t taken a book with him.
The next challenge for Cooper was his position as back-up commander for the Apollo 10 mission. Now, this would orbit the Moon in a practice run. And Cooper believed that this would put him in position to take command of Apollo 13. As you may know, this was the planned but ultimately aborted third mission to land on the Moon. However, personnel rotation put him out of the running for that.
After this disappointment, Cooper decided it was time to retire and, now a colonel, he duly resigned from the USAF and NASA. In fact, post his 1970 retirement he went on to work as a technical consultant and businessman. However, he still had that secret which he had learned during his time in space.
As it turned out, Cooper had been looking closely at the Earth while he was orbiting the planet aboard Faith 7. For a covert part of his mission had been to search for secret nuclear bases in the Caribbean. These would most likely be operated by Cuba and supplied with missiles by America’s Cold War arch enemy, the Soviet Union.
Now, Cooper achieved this part of his mission by using a special long-distance measuring device which could detect magnetic anomalies. These would, in turn, indicate the presence of a nuclear base. But he saw many anomalies that he realized were too small to be bases. Nevertheless, he kept a note of all of the anomalies, even those small ones.
And the astronaut decided that at least some of these smaller magnetic anomalies must actually be long-lost shipwrecks. After his mission, he started mapping all of the likely anomalies at the same time as researching historic records of shipwrecks. Therefore, the final step was to correlate the historical information with the data he’d collected while in space.
Using both data sets, Cooper created a map which he reckoned showed numerous wreck sites in the oceans. And these weren’t just any old wrecks. The retired astronaut believed many were from colonial times when sailing ships had plied the route from Europe to the Americas.
Furthermore, many of these mercantile ships could have been laden with lavish cargoes of gold and silver looted from South America. So in the right hands Cooper’s secret map could potentially lead to the discovery of untold riches. Sadly, Cooper died in 2004. But before he did, he passed his map on to diver and treasure hunter Darrell Miklos.
Interestingly, Miklos was a professional salvager and treasure hunter. And he’d started young in his trade with his father who was in the same line of business. Miklos’ first expedition came in 1970 when he sneaked aboard his father’s boat to help salvage NASA rockets from the sea. At that time, he was just seven years old.
You see, Miklos first met Cooper when he’d tagged along with his dad Roger Miklos on TV’s Merv Griffin Show. And Cooper was also appearing as a guest that day. Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2017 Miklos remembered, “I met him in the back room, and I was awestruck by his presence because he was an astronaut and actually went into space.”
Despite a 36-year gap in their age, Miklos and Cooper became good friends. In fact, Cooper became something of a father-figure to Miklos whose relationship with his own father was sometimes troubled. “I think that’s why he entrusted me with the chart, or treasure map from space, as well as all the files that went along with it,” Miklos told Vanity Fair in April 2017.
So Miklos went on to use Cooper’s map for a Discovery Channel television show Cooper’s Treasure which premiered in 2017. To add to that, it had a second season in 2018. And the show follows Miklos and his team as they hunt for shipwrecks that might have rich booty aboard. Mind you, the exploration is directed by Cooper’s map with its hundreds of putative wreck sites.
Most of the supposed wrecks are of 16th century Spanish galleons – vessels that could have been carrying hordes of gold and silver. Or at any rate, that’s what Miklos believes as did Cooper before him. So far the explorations covered by the TV show, though, have failed to uncover untold riches.
However, Miklos told Vanity Fair that he’d already investigated five of the wreck sites that Cooper had pinpointed. And each one had produced evidence of a shipwreck. Furthermore, these were just five sites out of the hundreds that Miklos said were identified on Cooper’s treasure map. So perhaps the legendary wealth of the Spanish at the bottom of the ocean will be found. But not just yet.
That’s not to say that Miklos and his team have failed to find anything to date. As seen in the second season of Cooper’s Treasure, they discovered an enormous anchor at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. And Miklos believed that this anchor, weighing between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds may have belonged to one of Christopher Columbus’ ships. Plus, they plucked two gold coins from the sea, too.
As Miklos went on to explain to Newsweek about his anchor find in 2017. “As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was: an early 1500s anchor,” he said. “I knew in my mind that we were onto something so historically significant, just by the first line of site… It looked so elegant and ladylike to me. It seemed so fragile. There was something tender about that anchor.” And Miklos was in little doubt that the anchor came from the era of Columbus.
Unfortunately, no sooner had Miklos and his team hauled the anchor up from the ocean bed than who should turn up, but a marine patrol from the Turks and Caicos authorities. And far from being jubilant when they saw the anchor, they were stern-faced. The patrol ordered Miklos to return the anchor to the sea immediately. He had no choice but to comply. So there’s been no opportunity to study the find and confirm its origins.
So overall, it’s a marvelous story. One of the earliest astronauts, Gordon Cooper, orbits Earth. And without telling his superiors what he’s up to, gathers data for a treasure map. Before his death, he gives his young protégé, Darrell Miklos the information and map. Miklos then gets a TV show out of it. Sadly, to date he’s found no treasure, apart from those two gold coins. And unfortunately the Discovery Channel appears to have no plans, as yet, for a third season. But perhaps we’re missing the lesson here. Yes, because Cooper actually demonstrated that looking at the earth from space can give us far more than just a breathtaking picture.