VETERAN ASTRONAUT WALTER SCHIRRA DIES
Only man who flew in all three of America’s first human space
projects – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo
LA JOLLA, CA (rushprnews) May 4th,2007 – Pioneering astronaut Walter “Wally” Schirra, the only man who flew in all three of America’s first human space
projects – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – died Wednesday. He was 84.
Schirra’s family reported he died of natural causes.
Schirra was one of America’s original seven astronauts, selected in
1959, and was commander of the first crew to fly into space aboard an
Apollo capsule, Apollo 7, following the tragic launchpad fire that
claimed the lives of the crew of Apollo 1.
“With the passing of Wally Schirra, we at NASA note with sorrow the
loss of yet another of the pioneers of human spaceflight,” NASA
Administrator Michael Griffin said. “As a Mercury astronaut, Wally
was a member of the first group of astronauts to be selected, often
referred to as the Original Seven.”
Schirra’s first space flight was piloting the fifth Mercury mission on
Oct. 3, 1962, orbiting Earth six times in 9 hours and 13 minutes.
During the flight he took hundreds of photos of Earth and space
phenomena. Schirra’s capsule, Sigma 7, splashed down only 5 miles
from the recovery carrier.
As commander of Gemini 6-A, which launched on Dec. 15, 1965, Schirra
flew with astronaut Tom Stafford on a mission that included the first
rendezvous of two manned, maneuverable spacecraft. Gemini 6-A and
Gemini 7 flew in formation for five hours, as close as one foot to
During his 11-day Apollo 7 flight, which began Oct. 11, 1968, he and
fellow crewmembers Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele tested the Apollo
systems and proved Apollo was ready to take astronauts to the moon.
“We shared a common dream to test the limits of man’s imagination and
daring,” Schirra wrote of America’s early astronauts. “Those early
pioneering flights of Mercury, the performances of Gemini and the
trips to the moon established us once and for all as what I like to
call a spacefaring nation. Like England, Spain and Portugal crossing
the seas in search of their nations’ greatness, so we reached for the
skies and ennobled our nation.”
Schirra retired from the Navy as a captain and from NASA in 1969 and
became a commentator with CBS News. His enthusiasm and knowledge of
the space program coupled with his charismatic on-the-air presence
made him an even more widely known national and international figure.
He complemented CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite and the two became a
powerful space-coverage team. Schirra worked for CBS from 1969 to
1975. He also engaged in a range of business activities and in 1979
formed his own consultant company, Schirra Enterprises.
Walter M. Schirra, Jr., was born in Hackensack, N.J., on March 12,
1923. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1945, and from
Naval Flight Training at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Fla., in 1947.
After service as a carrier-based fighter pilot and operations
officer, he attended the Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River,
Md. During the Korean War he flew F-86 Sabres under an exchange
program with the Air Force.
Schirra was chosen as one of the original “Mercury Seven” from among
110 selected test pilots from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps
after exhaustive physical and psychological examinations.
Known for lively storytelling and practical jokes, one of his
best-known anecdotes from astronaut training came when he and the
others were continually being examined and subjected to demands for
samples of body fluids. When one nurse insisted he provide a urine
sample, Schirra reportedly filled a 5-gallon jug with warm water,
detergent and iodine and left it on her desk.
“Levity makes life a lot easier,” he once told a Houston reporter.
Griffin noted that “It was impossible to know Wally, even to meet him,
without realizing at once that he was a man who relished the lighter
side of life, the puns and jokes and pranks that can enliven a
gathering. But this was a distraction from the true nature of the
man. His record as a pioneering space pilot shows the real stuff of
which he was made. We who have inherited today’s space program will
always be in his debt.”
The Mercury Seven trained initially at NASA’s Langley Research Center
in Hampton, Va. In 1961 they moved to the newly established Manned
Spacecraft Center (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) near
Schirra’s Sigma 7 mission was called “the perfect flight” by space
reporter and author Howard Benedict. After Schirra’s splashdown near
the carrier USS Kearsarge near Midway Island in the Pacific, he
pronounced himself “healthy as a bear” and “happy as a lark.”
Schirra’s Gemini flight with Stafford was something of an
improvisation. They had been scheduled to rendezvous in orbit with an
unmanned Agena to be launched 90 minutes before the Gemini liftoff.
But six minutes after the Atlas-Agena left the pad it exploded, and
the Gemini 6-A launch was postponed.
Eventually it was decided to use Gemini 7 as a rendezvous target for
Gemini 6-A. Both were to be launched from Pad 19 at Cape Canaveral,
so a record turnaround of the launch pad was necessary. Working
around the clock, crews got the pad ready in just eight days after
the Gemini 7 liftoff.
The Gemini 6-A countdown reached zero on Dec. 12, 1965, and the rocket
engines ignited – then shut down. The two astronauts had to wait
almost half an hour atop the fueled rocket before getting out of the
capsule. The problem turned out to be minor, the failure of an
Three days later, Gemini 6-A was launched without a hitch. The mission
proved the spacecraft could be readily maneuvered. It was an
encouraging development in the race to reach the moon.
By the launch of Apollo 7 in October 1968, the moon landing seemed to
be coming within reach. The success of the flight proved that it was.
Accomplishments of the mission commanded by Schirra resulted in the
next flight, Apollo 8, being sent around the moon.
Apollo 7 had not been all smooth sailing. All three astronauts had
colds. Schirra was occasionally firm in rejecting requests from the
ground to insert additional events in the already-crowded flight
“Television will be delayed, without any further discussion, until
after the rendezvous” (with a spent rocket stage), he said. He
subsequently was even more critical of efforts to add events to the
flight plan. Eventually the almost daily television transmissions
from Apollo 7 became popular mainstays of the mission coverage.
Schirra subsequently apologized for the tone of some of his
criticisms, though not for their content.
After leaving NASA, he participated in a number of television
presentations and films, and served as national spokesman for several
organizations and companies. He also held numerous directorships for
a variety of businesses, in addition to his consulting work. He also
wrote two books, “We Seven” published in 1960 and “Schirra’s Space”
published in 1988.
Schirra’s military awards included the Navy Distinguished Service
Medal, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals, two NASA
Distinguished Service Medals, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and
the Philippines Legion of Honor.
He was awarded honorary doctorates by several institutions of higher
He was active in a number of organizations. He was on the Advisory
Committee of the Oceans Foundations, the Advisory Board/Council of
U.S. National Parks, the Advisory Board of International “Up With
People” and was a founding member and director of the Mercury Seven
He also was a director of the San Diego Aerospace Museum, a trustee of
the Scripps Aquarium, and a member of the International Council of
the Salk Institute.
Schirra lived in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Survivors include his wife
Josephine, his daughter Suzanne and son Walter Schirra III.
Images and video from Schirra’s years with NASA can be seen at:
RUSH PR NEWS press release newswire services www.rushprnews.com
anne howard writer and publicist www.annehowardpublicist.com