When you examine the life of a hero, you almost always find a story more complex than the one you anticipated. The most common perception of Gordon Cooper is that he was a wise-cracking fighter jock who became an astronaut. His new autobiography, Leap of Faith, tells a different story.

Cooper's father was a military pilot and an attorney; his mother was a teacher who also loved to fly. He was raised in rural Oklahoma during the Depression, but due to his father's military career, he had an amazing list of acquaintances. As a child he had a crush on Amelia Earhart and swapped stories with Wiley Post; he was flying when most kids his age were learning to ride bikes.

Leap of Faith is full of fascinating anecdotes about the early days of the space program (yes, it's true that while waiting for his Faith 7 Mercury capsule to be launched, the cocky and relaxed fighter jock actually fell asleep in his seat). Cooper is opinionated, frank, and has a great story to tell. The only problem is that people are going to remember this book for another reason entirely: Gordon Cooper believes in the existence of UFOs, and he devotes almost a third of the book to this subject.

As a trained aerospace engineer, a pilot, and an astronaut, he makes a good circumstantial case for UFOs. Cooper claims to have seen, and even chased, flying saucers as a jet pilot stationed along the Iron Curtain in the early 1950s. He also relates tales passed on to him from the brotherhood of pilots, and tells an X-Files-like story of disappearing UFO pictures.

After his retirement from NASA he gets involved with esoteric research, first with Disney, then on his own, and becomes acquainted with people of dubious credibility in his search for new technologies. Note to Col. Cooper: As the Amazing Randi would tell you, bending spoons is a trick, and if anyone uses this as an introduction, you should take anything they say thereafter with a grain of salt. To his credit, while he's willing to listen to incredible stories, he always maintains some skepticism.

As a child of the '60s, I remember how much the astronauts meant to me; Gordon Cooper was one of my heroes. After reading Leap of Faith, he still is.

James Neal Webb writes from Nashville.

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