‘Wally’ Schirra Jr., veteran astronaut of 3 spaceflights

first_imgSAN DIEGO – Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr., who as one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts combined the Right Stuff – textbook-perfect flying ability and steely nerves – with a pronounced rebellious streak, died Thursday at 84. He was the only astronaut to fly in all three of NASA’s original manned spaceflight programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Although he never walked on the moon, Schirra laid some of the groundwork that made the lunar landings possible and helped win the space race for the United States. Schirra died of a heart attack at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, said Ruth Chandler Varonfakis, a family friend and spokeswoman for the San Diego Aerospace Museum. In 1962, the former Navy test pilot became the fifth American in space – behind Alan Shepard, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter – and the third American to orbit Earth, circling the globe six times in a flight that lasted more than nine hours. Schirra was named one of the Mercury Seven in 1959. Supremely confident, he sailed through rigorous astronaut training with what one reporter called “the ease of preparing for a family picnic.” “He was a practical joker, but he was a fine fellow and a fine aviator,” Carpenter recalled Thursday. “He will be sorely missed in our group.” During the mid-December 1965 Gemini 6 flight, Schirra and crew mate Thomas Stafford unnerved Mission Control when they reported, slowly and in deadpan fashion, seeing some kind of UFO consisting of “a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit” – Santa Claus. Then Schirra and Stafford played “Jingle Bells” on a tiny, smuggled-aboard harmonica and a set of sleigh bells. Earlier in 1965, Schirra also helped smuggle a corned beef sandwich onto Gemini 3, of which Grissom took a few bites during the flight, according to a NASA history. “At times he gave us a hard time during his flight; technically, what he did was superb,” Kraft said. Schirra blasted off from Cape Canaveral on Oct. 3, 1962, aboard the Sigma 7 Mercury spacecraft. “I’m having a ball up here drifting,” Schirra said from space before making a perfect splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. 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. Kraft said Schirra showed great poise during a launch attempt for the Gemini flight when the spacecraft’s booster ignited but shut down two seconds later. Schirra and Stafford would have been killed in a massive explosion had the launch vehicle risen just a few centimeters, and Kraft said Schirra would have been warranted in triggering a launch ejection. But instead he held steady, and the launch went off OK a few days later. Schirra’s Apollo mission in October 1968 restored the nation’s confidence in the space program, which had been shaken a year earlier when three astronauts, including Grissom, were killed in a fire on the launch pad. The Apollo 7 crew shot into space atop a Saturn rocket, a version of which would later carry men to the moon. But Schirra and his two fellow crew members were grumpy for most of the 11-day trip. All three developed bad colds that proved to be a major nuisance in zero gravity. “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.” Survivors include his wife, Josephine; daughter, Suzanne; and son, Walter Schirra III.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Schirra returned to space in 1965 as commander of Gemini 6. Some 185 miles above Earth, he guided his two-man capsule to within a few feet of Gemini 7 in the first rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit. On his third and final flight, aboard Apollo 7 in 1968, he helped set the stage for the landing of men on the moon during the summer of 1969. An inveterate prankster, he could be grumpy and recalcitrant in space, most famously during his Apollo mission. But “on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, he flew all three and did not make a mistake,” said Christopher Kraft, who was Schirra’s Mercury and Gemini flight director and later head of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “He was a consummate test pilot. The job he did on all three was superb.” Of the Mercury Seven, only Glenn and Carpenter are still alive. last_img

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