F. Don Cooper
Alumni Spring 2024

Among the Best at NASA

F. Don Cooper, ’60, literally solved the problem of where to point the astronauts when they left earth’s orbit.

For a hamburger, F. Don Cooper helped put a man on the moon.

And not a 2023-priced hamburger. This was 1960s coin.

Well, that wasn’t Cooper’s entire compensation. But it’s a very interesting part of the story of a history-making OBU alumnus.

Cooper graduated with honors from OBU in 1960 with a degree in physics and a minor in mathematics. He continued his education in graduate school at the University of Alabama. That same year, he went to work for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, as a member of the Advanced Design Laboratory, where they designed a new missile for the Army that was deployed to NATO.

In early 1962, he transferred to NASA as a mathematician at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in the Guidance Theory Section. There, he helped create the trans-lunar targeting equations for the manned Apollo missions. In all, Cooper worked on eight Apollo missions, plus the Atlas Centaur, the Air Force Dyna-Soar, and the Mars rocket NOVA. For the Apollo 13 mission, he provided the trans-lunar coast abort options to Houston Mission Control.

NASA is where the burger comes into play.

A paper, written from the viewpoint of Cooper’s NASA boss, Doris C. Chandler, describes the creation of the Saturn V guidance and Trans-Lunar Insertion (TLI) targeting equations: “Cooper Integrated the IGM (Iterative Guidance Mode) and TLI targeting equations into a comprehensive guidance and targeting system that was chosen to fly all manned Apollo missions. The definitive documentation by Cooper included performance and accuracy analysis over the complete launch window. The reward was a hamburger that Chandler bought A. W. Deaton and Cooper for lunch.”

True, Cooper’s compensation was more than a beef patty, buns, pickles, onions, lettuce and tomatoes. The hamburger was a kind gesture from an individual who believed in the young mathematician from Oklahoma she hired in early 1962.

Cooper explained that Chandler believed in the people she hired and let them do their jobs.

“I am proud to have contributed to the NASA Apollo project, which placed the first man on the moon,” Cooper said. “I was fortunate that my immediate supervisor at MSFC, Doris C. Chandler, gave me the undeserved freedom and encouragement to peruse my belief that TLI targeting should be an analytic solution when the collective wisdom was a different approach.”

Launching from Bison Hill

The precision involved in formulating a launch window is amazing – as are the steps God leads each person to take as they travel down their particular path in life.

Although it’s been more than six decades since Cooper graduated in the class of 1960, he recognizes God directed his steps and those of his wife to create their unique paths to OBU.

In Cooper’s case, the pastor of the church he attended during high school had a brother who went to OBU. Also, a high school friend of Cooper’s went to OBU.

“I was initially planning to go to the University of Oklahoma, where my uncle Glenn went, and become an electrical engineer,” Cooper said. “But my senior year in high school, I decided to major in physics.”

The deciding factors for Cooper were a scholarship from OBU along with partial financial assistance from his church.

He took it from there.

“By working summers in the oil field, I graduated debt-free,” he said.

Cooper could see God working in various ways.

“When I met my wife-to-be, Linda Lou Lee, who I would never have met except at OBU, I was certain God had led us to each other, and so was she,” Cooper said. “I was always glad I went to OBU. My freshman chemistry class taught by Dr. (William E.) Neptune was very important. He was a tough teacher, and I earned one of the few A’s. My primary goal was to learn all I could about physics, math and chemistry.”

A high school friend of Cooper’s went to MIT and they got together the summer after their freshman year.

“I learned his classes were more accelerated than mine, but OBU was not far behind,” Cooper said. “That assured me I was at an excellent school. OBU gave me a first-class education.”

At his first job at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, Cooper became the lead mathematician in his group.

“At NASA, I was one of the best among many very good mathematicians,” he said. “My entire life I have been able to choose whatever I wanted to do and be a success because of my education at OBU.”

Cooper helped design a new Army missile called the Lancer. He created and programmed a method to approximate detailed computer simulations that saved months of time. For this, he received the Army Commendation.

He understates the next step, which certainly meant more to the space industry than a hamburger lunch.

Very humbly, he said, “I worked at NASA on Apollo and solved the problem of where to point the astronauts when they left Earth orbit.”

As his impact on the present and the future continued to expand, he moved his family to Houston in 1965 and worked for the Johnson Space Center for the next seven years.

He then became the software project manager for a company that installed computer systems for General Public Utilities, which consisted of five electric companies. Following this position, he created a business installing microcomputers to manage inventory using software that he wrote.

Finally, he retired as the chief information officer for the Professional Compounding Centers of America.

Cooper firmly believes that Bison Hill was the right place to launch – academically and in terms of establishing self-confidence.

“I believe a small school with dedicated teachers is superior to large universities,” he said. “Teachers are more accessible, and they truly want every student to succeed.”

Back to the Classroom

Cooper accomplished much in the years after leaving the classrooms of OBU. Interestingly though, his passion for sharing his knowledge has returned him to the classroom in retirement.

After he retired in 2002, he found a new calling to encourage students to pursue a future in the physical sciences. Cooper enjoys speaking to youth groups, community organizations, schools and universities. He does so with the hopes of inspiring the technology leaders of the future with his first-hand account of the events as they actually happened.

“Students do not know much about Apollo since it all happened before they were born,” he said. “My objective is to show them how it happened, emphasize that education is essential, and show how math and physics solve real-world problems.”

That’s worth the price of a 2023 hamburger and a lot more.