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Alumni Profile in Excellence: Defining Decisions

July 2, 2008

Don Cooper has made a lot of important decisions. Some seemed insignificant at the time. Some helped shape historic events.

As a physicist for the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, Don solved problems involving the flight of space crafts. One of his most significant achievements was making crash calculations for the legendary Apollo 13 mission. The path to that achievement began on a short road trip in the 1950s.

While a high school student Oklahoma City, Don traveled to Shawnee with a friend to play basketball one Saturday. That decision to play hoops turned into an offer to attend OBU.

"My friend told me he had to take a test at OBU first," Don said. "I decided to take the test also. Later, someone at OBU called and offered me a scholarship."

Don accepted the offer and began studying physics on Bison Hill. Dr. Beryl Clotfelter and Dr. Eugene Lucas were some of his influential teachers. Longtime OBU physics professor C.J. Halley also contributed to Cooper's education.

Don recalled what happened in Halley's physics class in early October 1957, the day after the Soviets' Sputnik orbited the earth.

"Dr. Halley took our class out to an open area by the science building and demonstrated a water-powered rocket," he said. "I was not impressed. In fact, I remember being concerned that Dr. Haley would chase it into the street, be hit by a car, and I would miss lunch. Never did I dream that, five years later, I would create the equations to get us from earth orbit to the moon."

As a senior, Don applied to serve in the U.S. Air Force and spent three days at Tinker Air Force Base taking officer candidate tests. About a month before graduation, he received a message to call someone long distance.

"I was 22 and had never made a long distance phone call," he said. "I knew it must cost a lot of money, and since I had no money, I did not return the call."

One night, Don was summoned to a pay phone at his dorm. He said a person with a loud German accent was on the line.

"Why haven't you called me back?" the caller asked.

"I told him that I didn't have the money for a long distance call," Don said. "He asked how much money I had. When I said, 'a quarter,' he belted out the longest laugh I had ever heard, followed by, 'from now on call me collect!'"

The call was from Al Bromlick, a German mathematician who worked for the U.S. Army. He offered Don the chance to work for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and Cooper decided to pursue the opportunity.

Two days after graduation, in June 1960, Don drove to his new job inside Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Ala. His first assignment was helping design short-range missiles that could reach 200 miles.

Don was engaged to his soon-to-be wife, Linda Lou Lee, whom he met at OBU when she was a freshman, working in the library. They were married in October 1960.

Don took graduate courses at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and in 1961 went to work for NASA. One of his assignments was development of targeting guidance equations to get Apollo 11 from Earth's orbit to the lunar coast trajectory.

His decision to join the nation's race to the moon was relatively easy.

"The technical work for the Army was interesting, but I was beginning to realize that my life's work could not be determining how best to kill people," Don said. "Helping us get to the moon sounded much better."

In 1965, Don and his family moved from Huntsville to Houston, and he went to work for TRW Systems Group, which was the technical contractor for Johnson Space Center. As a member of the Apollo 11 Mission Team, Don was a part of history when man landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.

"I stayed at home to watch the launch with my family," Don said. "It was thrilling to see the beginning of what we all hoped would be a successful mission. The work was an application of what I had learned in school at OBU. It was fun to use your knowledge, but when I saw Apollo 11 lift off, there was a realization that this was serious and our work had better be correct."

Less than a year later, his phone rang about midnight with a request to help Apollo 13 return safely to Earth. Within 15 minutes, Don was at Houston Mission Control with other experts to determine the abort options. He knew there was no room for error.

"We provided the abort options and ran several more cases for different spacecraft positions," he said. "It was about 9 a.m., and we had done all we could."

Don said he went straight to his office, avoiding the media frenzy in the parking lot. Tired and sad, Don sat at his desk and prayed.

The Apollo 13 crew made it back to Earth unharmed. Don surmised what saved Apollo 13 was "the problem-solving ability of thousands of nerds."

After working with NASA and TRW, Don owned a business selling order entry systems and then was chief information officer for a pharmaceutical company. He retired in 2002.

Linda died in 1993 after a battle with breast cancer. At the time, Don wrote a lengthy letter to his grandchildren who were too young to really know their grandmother. He told them about her and gave advice that she would want them to have. The letter, bound in book form, is included in the OBU Historical Collection in the Mabee Learning Center.

Don has since married Mary Lou Click and enjoys spending time with their children and grandchildren. He also is an active tennis player, winning several Senior Olympics tennis gold medals.

No matter how simple or grave the results have been from the many decisions Don has made, his philosophy remained the same.

"It has been my experience that God will intervene at critical decisions in your life if you seek his guidance," he said. "The result will be a better life than you would have chosen on your own."

Click the following link to view a full list of previous Profile in Excellence recipients.