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Formula 1

When NASA banned an astronaut from racing in the Daytona 24 Hours

The Daytona 24 Hours usually attracts some big-names from the likes of Formula 1 or IndyCar, but back in 1969, NASA had to ban one astronaut and their Head of Security from the race.

To news overview © XPBimages

As the Soviet Union kicked off the space race in 1957 with the launch of the first satellite Sputnik and then put the first man in space five years later in Yuri Gagarin, the United States responded.

The end goal was landing a man on the moon and returning safely to Earth, and as such, astronauts were needed.

Unsurprisingly, the throttle jockeys selected were test and jet pilots who were rather risk-averse and, being the competitive bunch they were, loved to get one up on their colleagues.

Throughout the 1960s as NASA worked through its Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes, Florida became a hub of activity with all launches taking place on the coast, not too far from Daytona International Speedway.

If you spent enough time near the Kennedy Space Centre watching, chances are you would have seen a few Chevrolet Corvettes racing through the dunes as competitive instinct kicked in amongst the astronauts.

1960 Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann befriended those all hoping to take that first small step, and set up a deal to provide them with 'vettes for $1 - which is where some were introduced to the real world of racing.

One astronaut, selected in the very first group, was Gordon Cooper, known as 'Gordo.'

Come 1969, Cooper, who had already flown in space, was back-up commander for Apollo 10 - which was slated to be a full-dress rehearsal for the actual Moon landing itself.

If all went right, he was set to then command Apollo 13 three flights later, as part of the normal crew rotation process, and walk on the Moon.

And slap-bang in the middle of training for Apollo 10, he decided to enter himself into the Daytona 24 Hours, until NASA found out about it, that was.

Cooper the racer

Throughout the 1960s, Cooper had been a familiar face at the Indy 500, with the likes of Alan Shepard, the first American and second man in space, tagging along.

Cooper even founded his own race team, Grissom, Cooper, Rathmann (GRC), with fellow astronaut Gus Grissom and Rathmann and ran cars at Indy.

In 1967, he finally got to drive the IMS oval - but was firmly kept in check by officials who prevented him from flooring it, much to his dismay.

Come 1969, and Cooper had decided to enter himself into the Daytona 24 Hours, alongside NASA Head of Security at the Kennedy Space Centre, Charles Buckley.

He actually qualified 25th of 67 runners, and ahead of Ricardo Rodriguez, until NASA nixed the plan.

The race was just a couple of months before the May 1969 launch of Apollo 10, and as such, NASA was not best enamoured with the idea of a vital crew member being injured, or worse, in the race, and so promptly ordered him to withdraw, and put pressure on the organisers.

Cooper, reluctantly agreed and pulled out, describing the decision as NASA wanting astronauts to be "tiddlywinks."

Despite Apollo 10 going flawlessly and paving the way for Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Cooper never flew on Apollo 13.

Due to this episode and his perceived lax attitude towards training, he was bumped from commanding Apollo 13, which suffered the in-flight explosion that ruled out a landing attempt and became a fight for survival for the crew.

Cooper never flew an Apollo mission, leaving NASA for the engineering and design world, passing away in 2004 aged 77, having also become a strong believer in UFOs, having made multiple sightings in his career as a test pilot.

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