In Brief
  • Former NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper made observations during Project Mercury that helped him identify over 100 potential sites of sunken shipwrecks.
  • Now a TV show is chronicling a treasure hunter's exploration of the sites.

Eagle-Eyed Astronaut

Viewing our planet from a distance has given many of those lucky enough to travel into space a unique perspective. As former NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell has been quoted as saying, “My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.”

But for at least one astronaut, the view from Earth’s orbit offered more than just philosophical insight. Gordon Cooper, former NASA astronaut and pilot of Faith 7 during Project Mercury, witnessed something unusual beneath our oceans. Something that, he estimated, could only be one thing — treasure.

Gordan Cooper. Credit: NASA
Gordan Cooper. Credit: NASA

One of Cooper’s responsibilities on the Faith 7 flight in 1963 was to look for nuclear launch sites. He spent 34 hours snapping shots of potential sites with a camera as he completed 22 revolutions around Earth. Cooper was known for having keen eyesight, and he kept noticing strange pings from his equipment, indicating large metal objects under the sea.

These readings were definitely not from launch sites, but Cooper made meticulous notes on them anyway and determined that the metallic hunks were located along routes that used to be used by Spanish traders. He suspected that he had detected sunken ships, but kept his observations and theories to himself, telling no one — including NASA — for 40 years.

Finally, in 2004, just before his death, Cooper shared this secret with his friend and professional treasure hunter Darrell Miklos. The two had hunted for sunken treasure before, and now Cooper was able to share more than 100 possible shipwreck locations. Miklos is currently exploring these sites, and so far has found shipwrecks in five out of five visited sites. Miklos’s journey is even being documented in “Cooper’s Treasure” on the Discovery channel, which premiered this month.

Valuable Perspective

These lost treasures are just one — albeit especially exciting — example of the important role space exploration has in making discoveries not only about other worlds, but our own as well. The readings that we can take in orbit and the massive amounts of data compiled can drastically impact our understanding of this planet.

Another example of this is how NASA initiated the idea of an “Earth System Science.” While astronomers had previously studied the climates of other planets like Venus as planet-wide dynamic systems, this concept had not been applied to Earth. And, rather than drawing conclusions on the climate based on their immediate surroundings, scientists began to analyze how different variables like soil moisture and ocean temperature interact with each other on a global scale. This new way of thinking has been invaluable as scientists seek to understand the carbon cycle and how humans influence it.

Space exploration has received significant support by those who want to learn about new planets — and rightly so. But, even if you are only interested in learning more about our home world, missions to space are worth the investment.