wshirra.jpgWalter Marty “Wally” Schirra Jr., the only astronaut who flew in three of the nation’s pioneering space programs (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo), died on May 3 from a heart attack. He was 84.
Born in Hackensack, N.J., Schirra was raised by a pair of barnstormers. His father, who was an officer in the Army Signal Corps, flew bombing and reconnaissance missions over Germany in World War I, and later performed stunts in a bi-plane at county fairs and air circuses. His mother sometimes performed wing-walking stunts during these shows. Although Schirra was only 13 years old when he first took the controls of his father’s plane, he knew flying would be a major part of his future. Schirra graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1945 and earned his wings in 1948. During the Korean War, he flew 90 missions and brought down two enemy planes. Upon his return to the states, Schirra completed his coursework at Safety Officers School (University of Southern California) in 1957 and graduated from the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School in 1958. A year later, he began a rigorous training program to become one of the world’s first astronauts.
Seven men were chosen from a pool of 110 candidates to become pilots for America’s first space flight program, the Mercury 7 project. Schirra was a member of that elite group, along with Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Donald “Deke” Slayton. Schirra piloted the fifth Mercury flight on the Sigma 7, which orbited the Earth six times over nine hours in 1962. He served as backup command pilot for the Gemini 3 mission and commanded the history-making Gemini 6 flight in 1965. During the Gemini 6 mission, the crew made the first non-docking rendezvous with the orbiting Gemini 7 spacecraft — and drank the first cup of coffee in space.
Schirra’s final mission in 1968 involved commanding Apollo 7, the first manned flight of the Apollo program. During the course of the 11-day mission, the crew made 163 orbits, provided the first televised pictures from an American spacecraft and helped qualify the spacecraft for later moon missions. With Schirra’s death, Glenn and Carpenter are the last remaining survivors of the original Mercury astronauts. The trio were featured in the 1979 book, “The Right Stuff,” by Tom Wolfe, and in the 1983 film adaptation of the same name. Actor Lance Henriksen portrayed Schirra in the movie.
In 1969, Schirra retired from the Navy as a captain and left NASA, having logged 295 hours and 15 minutes in space. After exiting the space program, he worked as an analyst for CBS News and became president of Regency Investors Inc., a financial company based in Denver. Schirra spent several years participating in various other business ventures before opening his own consultancy, Schirra Enterprises, in 1979. Five years later, he helped found the Mercury Seven Foundation (now the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation), which creates college scholarships for science and engineering students. Schirra published his memoirs, “Schirra’s Space,” in 1988 and co-authored the 2005 book, “The Real Space Cowboys,” with Ed Buckbee, a former NASA public affairs officer and the first executive director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. He also became a celebrity spokesperson for Actifed, a cold medicine he used during the Apollo 7 mission.
Schirra received numerous honors, awards and commendations during the course of his military and space careers. He attained 3 honorary doctorate degrees: one in Astronautical Engineering from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, one in science from USC and one in astronautics from N.J.I.T. He earned three Air Medals, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, a U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Medal, a Kitty Hawk Award, a Great American Award, a Golden Key Award and a Haley Astronautic Award. Schirra was also inducted into the Aerospace Hall of Fame, the International Aviation Hall of Fame, the International Space Hall of Fame, the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. In 2005, he was named a NASA Ambassador of Exploration and presented with a moon rock in his name.
Although he was a hardworking and witty fellow, Schirra also had a reputation as a prankster. During his Mercury 7 flight, he smuggled a corned beef sandwich onboard inside his space suit to share with his crew. His most famous practical joke, however, occurred in 1965. Ten days before Christmas, Schirra and Stafford were approaching the West Coast when they reported seeing an unidentified flying object coming straight at them. A few minutes later, Stafford and Schirra began playing “Jingle Bells” on a harmonica and a string of bells, and declared the UFO to be Santa Claus.
“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,” Mike Griffin, NASA Administrator, stated.
Listen to a Remembrance From NPR
Watch a Tribute Video From Foolish Earthling Productions