As It Happens

How a NASA astronaut's 'treasure map from space' sparked a hunt for lost shipwrecks

In the new Discovery Channel series Cooper's Treasure, Darrell Miklos travels the world in search of long-lost shipwrecks using a treasure map made from space.
Gordon Cooper, whose Mercury flight set a U.S. endurance record at the time, also used his time orbiting the Earth to create a treasure map of lost shipwrecks. (NASA)

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Darrell Miklos is a professional treasure hunter on the adventure of a lifetime.

Miklos is travelling the world to track down long-lost shipwrecks using a treasure map that his friend — the late NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper — began to put together while he was orbiting the Earth in a spacecraft in 1963. 

Cooper headed up Mercury-Atlas 9, in which he piloted the Faith 7 spacecraft for 34 hours — doing 22 orbits around the Earth. 

While he was up there, he was tasked with finding potential nuclear threats by pinpointing magnetic anomalies using long-range detection equipment. But some of the anomalies he recorded were too small to be nuclear devices.

"He deduced right away that they were shipwrecks because they were smaller, yet they were out in the middle of nowhere — very isolated locations throughout the Caribbean, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico and South America and off the coast of Florida," Milkos told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Cooper dutifully recorded the geographical co-ordinates of these anomalies in a notebook, and when he returned to Earth, he mapped them out on a sea chart, creating what Milkos calls "a treasure map from space."

Throughout his life, Cooper compiled reams of research about historical shipwrecks that corresponded to the locations on his map.

One of the original Mercury Project astronauts, Gordon Cooper became the first man to spend 34 hours in space, as well as the first man to sleep in space. (NASA via Getty Images)

His findings led him to believe the wrecks on his map were most likely from the colonial period, when ships frequently journeyed back to Europe from the Americas with hordes of pillaged treasures — Indigenous gold and silver objects that had been melted down and turned into coins. 

"But, of course, a lot of that treasure never made it back," Milkos said.

Some could even be from Christopher Columbus' lost fleet

Cooper had planned to organize expeditions himself to find these treasures, but he died in 2004 of heart failure before he could finish his work.

He passed his map — and the accompanied research — to Miklos.

Darrell Miklos, a longtime friend of the late astronaut Gordon Cooper, stars in Cooper's Treasures. (Discovery Channel)

Milkos met Cooper when he was just a boy. His own father, also a professional treasure hunter, was a guest on The Merv Griffin Show alongside Cooper.

"We did a lot of research together and we were setting up expeditions with my father, initially, and my father broke away," Milklos said. "We have an estranged relationship, my father and I, so Gordon and I developed a really strong bond."

Now Milkos has set about finding these sunken ships in a new Discovery Channel docu-series called Cooper's Treasure.

"We want to bring to light the new stories of the shipwrecks that have yet been discovered, tell the story and share that with the world, and share it with the host countries that allow us to do the research and survey in their countries," he said.

"That's what we're trying to do is to open a dialogue about the past with the host countries."

So who keeps this treasure once it's unearthed?

Milkos said the Discovery Channel has worked out a deal to share the spoils with the countries in which the expeditions take place. 

Because the previous metals have likely been melted down into coins, he said there's no way to determine exactly where they originated from and return them to the Indigenous populations from whom they were originally stolen.

"Unless we found valuable Indian artifacts that were obvious from a certain region, I guess that would be something that we would think about," he said. 

Cooper's Treasures premiered this week on the Discovery Channel.