Gary Cooper of Belfast was just a teenager on July 20, 1969, when he watched, transfixed, as Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took his historic first step on the moon.
“The whole world had joy over it,” the graphic artist and sculptor said this week, wiping tears from his eyes at the powerful memory. “That footprint wasn’t Armstrong’s footprint — it was everybody on Earth’s at the time. I remember the moment. We actually landed on another world.”
So when the U.S. Mint announced a competition to design a commemorative coin to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Cooper knew right away what his entry would be. Last week, officials at the Mint announced that his sculpted design of the photograph of Armstrong’s footprint in the lunar dust would be featured on the special coins.
For the Maine artist, it isn’t just an ordinary commission, but rather an honor and the culmination of a lifelong dream.
“I’ve been a coin collector ever since I was 11 years old,” he said. “From an early age I dreamed of doing a design for a U.S. coin.”
Cooper, who believes he was named after the actor although his mother always denied it — “I was born the year “High Noon” came out,” he said — first started trying to achieve that dream when he was in high school in Greenwich, Connecticut. That’s when he wrote a letter to the director of the U.S. Mint, offering to help design the Eisenhower dollar coin.
The director did write back, although he politely declined the teen’s offer. But Cooper, who moved to Maine in 1988, was undaunted. For the past 20 years, he has submitted designs to the Mint in hopes that one would be chosen for the Sacagawea dollar, the Maine state quarter and others.
But none made the cut. That changed last November, when he received the news he has been waiting many years to hear.
It seemed impossible.
“I didn’t really believe it,” Cooper said.
But it was true. The design he had toiled over for many hours using a 3D design program on his computer would make its way to the obverse side of four coins: a $5 gold coin, a standard-size $1 silver coin, a half dollar clad coin and a 5-ounce, heavier-than-usual $1 silver proof coin.
The submission had to adhere to the U.S. Mint’s strict guidelines about what graphic elements could be included, and he was not allowed to include a representation of any person, living or dead. Armstrong’s iconic footprint, though, is allowable. The coins also will feature the words “Mercury,” “Gemini” and “Apollo,” separated by renderings of the phases of the moon. In a manufacturing first for the Mint, the 5-ounce silver proof coin will be curved, as will the other coins in the program.
Cooper will receive a total of $5,500 for his design, but the money is not why he is excited.
“It was a delight to see him finally get one,” his wife, Marcia Cooper, said, adding that not everyone understands how hard it is to sculpt a lifelike 3D design on the computer. “What people don’t realize is that you don’t just push a button. It’s literally placing each pixel in position. It’s excruciating and painstaking.”
Cooper has used the process before to sculpt memorial plaques that hang in the Maine State House Hall of Flags and to honor Maine female veterans, Maine Vietnam veterans, Maine Korean veterans and Maine World War II veterans.
After the design is done, a precision model is created using a computer numerical control, or CNC, machine. This is essentially what will happen with the U.S. Mint coin design, too, with the first coins scheduled to go on sale at noon Jan. 24, 2019. The Mint will announce the coin prices ahead of the sale date.
The other side of the coin has a design by a U.S. Mint engraver that was inspired by the photo that shows the reflection from astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s helmet, which includes Armstrong, the U.S. flag and the lunar lander.
Surcharges collected from the sales of the coins will be distributed to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum’s ”Destination Moon” exhibit, the Astronauts Memorial Foundation and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
“I hope it sells well,” Cooper said.
David Ryder, the director of the U.S. Mint, said last week in a coin design unveiling ceremony at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., that he didn’t think that would be a problem.
“We’re expecting it to sell out in less than five minutes,” he said of the largest silver commemorative coin. “If you want to get it, get in quick.”
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.