Astronaut Walter Schirra dies at 84

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Apr 9, 2005
Colorado, USA
SAN DIEGO - Astronaut Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr., one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts and the only man to fly on all three of NASA's early space missions, has died at the age of 84, NASA officials confirmed Thursday.

Schirra, who commanded the first rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit, died late Wednesday, said David Mould, NASA press secretary in Washington. Mould said Schirra had cancer, but he didn't know if that contributed to his death.

In 1962, Schirra became the third American to orbit the Earth, encircling the globe six times in a flight that lasted 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.

"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.

Mercury Seven astronauts who survive him are John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, and Scott Carpenter.

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 in October 1968 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 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.

Six months before I joined the Baha'i Faith, the then U.S. Navy test pilot, Walter M. Schirra, was named by NASA as one of the seven Mercury Astronauts. It was April 1959. Three and a half years later, On October 3 1962, a month after my pioneering life began in the Canadian Baha'i community, Shirra piloted the six orbit Sigma 7 Mercury flight, a flight which lasted 9 hours, 15 minutes. The spacecraft attained a velocity of 17,557 miles per hour at an altitude of 175 statute miles and travelled almost 144,000 statute miles before re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Recovery of the Sigma 7 spacecraft occurred in the Pacific Ocean about 275 miles northeast of Midway Island.

Shirra died yesterday. I received the news while watching television here in Australia at the mid-point in my day of writing and reading. I usually take a break for lunch in the early afternoon about 1 or 2 p.m., watch/listen to some news and get back to the work. As I listened to the report I felt a kinship with Shirra even though he was twenty-two years my senior, had at least three honorary doctorates, a number of major awards, had been inducted into several halls of fame and had business and civic experience that was, to say the least, impressive. I was not in his league. But, still, I felt this kinship with the man and when I heard he had died, it was a cause for reflection. No tears were shed. I had no desire to meet him, talk to him on the phone, write the biography of his life, meet any of his family or indeed excavate in the inner motivations and or the outward experience of this pioneering astronaut.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 4 May 2007.

You were from Hackensack1
and I was from Hamilton, but
what a high-flier you were, Walter!
One of aviation's Hall of Famers
in your Sigma 7 back in '62, in '65
in that Gemini 6 or that first manned
test of an Apollo spacecraft in '68
for the moon landing-reaching for
the skies! And they say you were
quite the entertainer.2

And me, Wally, just one of those
ordinarily ordinary boys from one
of a 1000 towns across this land.
The first to rendezvous in space,
you were--and it was not over,
you said, until you had stopped,
with no relative motion between
the two vehicles.3 I always wondered
what a rendezvous of my soul with its
Source of light was exactly, Wally,
well, you've given me a hint.........

1 Shirra was born in this New Jersey town on 12 March 1923.
2 "Levity is appropriate in a dangerous trade," Shirra said to Life magazine
3 Wikipedia, "Walter M. Shirra," 4 May 2007

Ron Price 5 May 2007 (completed: 9 June 2007)
Christ dont time fly it certainly does'nt feel like that long ago that I saw the news about Gagarin and then watched on TV the Gemini launches and space walks Etc the race between the USSR and the USA was very exciting boys own stuff thanks for the thrills Walter.
My Grandmother remembered reading news of the Wright Brothers flight, Saw 2 world wars and watched the first man walk on the moon she always said she had lived during the most exciting and terrible period in human history.
Walter deffinately contributed to the exciting part.
I feel the same, Track. Can't believe its been that long. And there's only 2 left of the original Mercury Seven? Man, have I been out of the loop! And just the other day the shuttle went up and hardly a blip on the news reports - better to talk about Paris Hilton.:rolleyes:

:salute: to ya, Wally

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