A REAL hero!
Wally Schirra, one of America’s seven original Mercury astronauts, and the only man to fly on all three of NASA’s pre-shuttle space programs, died Thursday morning in California, NASA officials confirmed.
His family said he died late Wednesday and had been suffering from cancer, David Mould, NASA press secretary in Washington, said Thursday.
Schirra, who was named an astronaut by NASA in April 1959, became the third American to orbit the Earth when he piloted the six-orbit Sigma 7 Mercury flight on Oct. 3, 1962, a flight that lasted a little more than nine hours.
He returned to space three years later as commander of Gemini 6 and guided his two-man capsule toward Gemini 7, already in orbit. On Dec. 15, 1965, the two ships came within a few feet of each other as they shot through space, some 185 miles above the Earth. It was the first rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit.
His third and final space flight in 1968 inaugurated the Apollo program that sought to land a man on the moon.
The former Navy test pilot said he initially had little interest when he heard of NASA’s Mercury program. But he grew more intrigued over time and the space agency named him one of the Mercury Seven in April 1959.
Supremely confident, he sailed through rigorous astronaut training with what one reporter called “the ease of preparing for a family picnic.”
He became the fifth American in space when he blasted off from Cape Canaveral on Oct. 3, 1962, aboard the Sigma 7 Mercury spacecraft. The first two American astronauts made suborbital space flights. Fellow astronaut John Glenn was the first American to pilot an orbital flight.
“I’m having a ball up here drifting,” Schirra said from space.
At the end of his sixth orbit, Schirra piloted the capsule for a perfect splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
“No one has flown better than you,” NASA Administrator James E. Webb told him a few days later.
In addition to Schirra, the original Mercury Seven astronauts were: Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, and Deke Slayton.
With Schirra’s death, only Glenn and Carpenter survive.
All seven were immortalized in the Tom Wolfe book, “The Right Stuff,” which chronicled the lives of the original astronauts and the most famous non-astronaut, test pilot Chuck Yeager.
Although he never walked on the moon, Schirra laid some of the groundwork that made future missions possible.
He liked to stress that NASA never planned to simply send a person to the moon.
“Moon and back,” Schirra would point out. “We did confirm a round trip from the very beginning. And `moonandback’ is one word. No hyphens. No commas.”
His Gemini mission represented a major step forward in the nation’s space race with the Soviet Union, proving that two ships could dock in space. Schirra’s Apollo 7 mission in 1968 restored the nation’s confidence in the space program, which had been shaken a year earlier when three astronauts were killed in a fire on the launch pad.
His last space flight, aboard Apollo 7, shot into space on Dec. 15 atop a Saturn rocket, a version of which would later carry men to the moon. But Schirra and his two fellow crewmembers were grumpy for most of the 11-day trip. All three developed bad colds that proved to be a major nuisance in weightlessness.
The following year, Schirra resigned from NASA and retired from the Navy with the rank of captain. He had logged 295 hours 154 minutes in space.
“Mostly it’s lousy out there,” Schirra said in 1981 on the occasion of the first space shuttle flight. “It’s a hostile environment, and it’s trying to kill you. The outside temperature goes from a minus 450 degrees to a plus 300 degrees. You sit in a flying Thermos bottle.”
A native of Hackensack, N.J., Schirra developed an early interest in flight. His father was a fighter pilot during World War I and later barnstormed at county fairs with Schirra’s mother, who sometimes stood of the wing of a biplane during flights.
Wally, as he liked to be called, took his first flight with his father at age 13 and already knew how to fly when he left home for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
After graduation in 1945, Schirra served in the Seventh Fleet and flew 90 combat missions during the Korean War. He was credited with shooting down one Soviet MiG-15 and possibly a second. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals.
In 1984, he moved to the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe, serving on corporate boards and as an independent consultant. His favorite craft became the Windchime, a 36-foot sailboat.
Schirra was inducted into the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor in 2000.