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Wally Schirra: Mercury, Gemini & Apollo Astronaut

Original Astronaut Wally Schirra Dies at 84
Walter Wally Schirra poses in his Mercury pressure suit with a model of the Mercury spacecraft behind him.
Credit: NASA

Walter "Wally" Schirra was the only astronaut who flew in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Named as one of NASA's "Original Seven" Mercury astronauts in 1959, he remained an astronaut long enough to fly the first manned mission of the Apollo command module that eventually ferried crews to and from the moon. He also sat through a pad abort during the Gemini program.

An aeronautical engineer by training, Schirra joined the U.S. Naval Academy in 1942 and completed a Bachelor of Science degree in 1945. He was supposed to join World War II aboard the armored battle cruiser Alaska, but the war ended by the time the boat got to Japan, NASA said in a biography.

Schirra did see combat action in the Korean War, where he flew 90 combat missions. He subsequently became a test pilot at the Naval Ordnance Training Station in California and also attended the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland, among other duties.

During the selection process for being a NASA astronaut, doctors found an abnormal growth in Schirra's larynx and eventually opted to remove it. "They arranged to give him what was normally a two- or three-month treatment in two to three days in order to get it over with. This was Schirra's first clue that he was on the way to becoming one of NASA's first seven astronauts," NASA stated.

Sigma 7's 'micromouse farts'

Each astronaut in Mercury was assigned responsibility to help develop a system that would be used in space. Schirra's was to examine the life-support systems of the spacecraft as well as testing the spacesuits, NASA said. Schirra saw several other members of his class fly before he got the chance himself.

When Deke Slayton was pulled from a flight due to a heart condition, Schirra thought he would be assigned instead since Schirra was his backup. It ended up being Scott Carpenter, which upset Schirra, especially because Schirra was now Carpenter's backup as well. Schirra, however, threw himself into his new duties. "I don't think anyone knew how angry I was," Schirra wrote in his autobiography, "Schirra's Space."

The next flight — Mercury's fifth — was assigned to Schirra, however. He decided to name it Sigma 7 to symbolize engineering excellence, and asked program officials to allow him to turn off the automatic attitude controls to save on fuel. This would allow the spacecraft to do more orbits of Earth and lengthen the flight.

Schirra launched Oct. 3, 1962, and was given the go for six orbits, which was a record for the time. He attributed this to his careful use of fuel. "I fired my thrusters sparingly, in small bursts that I like to call micromouse farts," he wrote. "At the end of my flight I had over half my fuel left and had to dump it."

'I had my butt working for me'

Schirra's star rose even further in the Astronaut Office during an attempted launch of Gemini 6-A in 1965. The mission had already experienced some problems even before beginning. NASA was in the middle of figuring out how to dock two spacecraft, which was a necessary act for heading to the moon. A robotic Agena target spacecraft, however, blew up before making it into orbit.

NASA instead decided to launch Gemini 7 on Dec. 4 as the "target" for Gemini 6. Jim Lovell and Frank Borman were in orbit awaiting the arrival of Schirra and Tom Stafford. Upon ignition of Gemini 6-A on Dec. 12, however, the Titan II rocket started up and shut down only two seconds later. Schirra had the option to eject, but elected not to. "I had my butt working for me. I knew we had not lifted off, so I didn't initiate the ejection sequence," Schirra wrote later. Launch went off successfully three days later and the two spacecraft made a rendezvous or planned close approach in space.

Schirra was then tapped to command Apollo 7, which ended up being the first manned mission after the fatal pad fire that claimed the crew of Apollo 1. The veteran astronaut strove to keep tasks to the bare essentials to ensure mission success, but things derailed after Schirra developed a cold and reportedly passed it on to crewmembers Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele.

Mission controllers complained of a snippy crew, who also nixed a planned television broadcast. The last straw came when the astronauts refused to wear their suit helmets during re-entry over concerns that the change of altitude could hurt their eardrums. "It was insubordinate ... This crew shouldn't fly again," wrote former flight director Chris Kraft in his memoirs, "Flight: My Life in Mission Control." In his own autobiography, Schirra countered that the ground overlooked "intangible things", but did not elaborate on what those were.

After leaving NASA, Schirra undertook numerous business ventures in banking, aviation, oil, advertising and other industries. Schirra died in May 2007 of a heart attack.

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