Wally Schirra: Mercury, Gemini & Apollo Astronaut

Walter "Wally" Schirra was the only one of his fellow astronauts to fly in three NASA programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Named as one of NASA's "Original Seven" Mercury astronauts in 1959, he remained an astronaut long enough to fly the first crewed 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 earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the the U.S. Naval Academy in 1945. He was supposed to join a World War II mission aboard the armored battle cruiser Alaska, but the war ended by the time the boat got to Japan, according to a NASA biographyof Schirra. 

Schirra did see combat action in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, during which 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 NASA's astronaut program, doctors found an abnormal growth in Schirra's larynx and immediately opted to remove it. According to NASA's biography of Schirra, doctors decided to give the prospective astronaut what should have been a two- to three-month treatment in just two or three days to speed up the process. This was Schirra's first indication that NASA wanted him to be one of the agency's first seven astronauts.

Sigma 7's 'micromouse farts'

In 1959, Schirra was selected to join NASA's first group of astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven. The Mercury programwas NASA's inaugural human spaceflight program.

Each astronaut in the Mercury program was assigned a specific responsibility to help develop the system that would be used in space. Schirra's assignment was to examine the life-support systems of the spacecraft and test out the spacesuits, according to NASA.

When Deke Slayton, a World War II veteran pilot and member of the Mercury Seven, was pulled from the Mercury-Atlas 7 flight due to a heart condition, Schirra thought he would be assigned instead, since he was Slayton's backup. But NASA selected Scott Carpenter, a fellow member of the Mercury Seven. The agency's choice upset Schirra, especially because he remained in the backup position for Carpenter.

"I don't think anyone knew how angry I was," Schirra wrote in his autobiography, "Schirra's Space" (Naval Institute Press, 2000).

However, Schirra was assigned the next flight, the fifth Mercury mission, called Mercury-Atlas 8. As stated in his autobiography, Schirra decided to name the spacecraft he flew Sigma 7, which he said symbolized engineering excellence. (Sigma is a Greek symbol that represents the sum of an equation.)

Before the mission, Schirra requested that program officials allow him to turn off the automatic attitude controls during flight to save on fuel, allowing the spacecraft to do more orbits of Earth and lengthen the flight.

Schirra launched on Oct. 3, 1962, and was given the go-ahead for six orbits, which was a record at the time. He attributed his success to his careful use of fuel.

"I fired my thrusters sparingly, in small bursts that I like to call micromouse farts," Schirra wrote in his autobiography. "At the end of my flight I had over half my fuel left and had to dump it."

Walter Wally Schirra poses in his Mercury pressure suit with a model of the Mercury spacecraft behind him. (Image credit: NASA)

'I had my butt working for me'

After the Mercury program, Schirra continued working for NASA, this time with Project Gemini. The Gemini program was designed to send more astronauts into space for longer periods of time in preparation for sending future crewed missions to the moon.

Schirra was selected as the command pilot for the Gemini 6 spacecraft. The goal of the mission was to perform the first rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft — a maneuver that would be necessary for future moon missions.

Schirra and his fellow pilot, Thomas Stafford, were supposed to dock with the unmanned spacecraft Agena, which had launched three months earlier, but it exploded before making it into orbit.

So instead, NASA decided to launch Gemini 7 on Dec. 4, 1965, as the new target for Schirra and Stafford in the mission NASA renamed as Gemini 6-A. Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, the astronauts aboard Gemini 7, made it to orbit and awaited the arrival of Schirra and Stafford.

Upon ignition of Gemini 6-A on Dec. 12, however, the Titan II rocket that was to launch the spacecraft shut down just 2 seconds after starting up. Schirra and Stafford had the option to eject but Schirra 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. The launch was rescheduled and went off successfully three days later, and the two Gemini spacecraft made a successful rendezvous in space.

Next, Schirra was selected 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 crew of Apollo 7

Apollo 7 lifted off on Oct. 11, 1968. The veteran astronaut strove to keep tasks for the crew to the bare essentials to ensure mission success, but things derailed after Schirra developed a cold and reportedly passed it on to fellow crewmembers Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele.

Mission controllers complained of snippy Apollo 7 crewmembers 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" (Dutton, 2001).

In his own autobiography, Schirra countered that the ground crew overlooked "intangible things," but he didn't 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.

Schirra's legacy

Although Schirra's death was many years ago, his website (www.wallyschirra.com) is still active. His webmaster, Tracy, wrote this shortly after Schirra's death: "Wally left me with one final 'gotcha'. Within minutes of the public announcement of his passing, the server that hosts this web site did a complete meltdown due to so many simultaneous hits. Wally could never truly figure out why people loved to visit this site – and this was his last laugh at my expense. Thanks, Wally. We had over a million hits to this site within the first 36 hours. Remember our 'agreement' at a buck a hit. Where should I send my bill? Gotcha!"

In the days after Schirra's passing, his family asked that those who wanted to remember Schirra could make donations to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, the San Diego Air & Space Museum and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots' Scholarship Foundation.

The 50th anniversary of Apollo 7 was Oct. 11, 2018. NASA and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum expect to hold a number of events related to the 50th anniversary of key Apollo missions, including the first landing (Apollo 11), which occurred on July 20, 1969.

Meanwhile, NASA is considering sending humans back to the moon in the coming decade, following a directive from the Trump administration in late 2017. The agency is designing a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (lunar space station) and may also land humans on the surface.

Coincidentally, the USS Wally Schirra, a U.S. Navy cargo ship, participated in a rescue of a dozen Filipino fisherman in the Indian Ocean just days before the 50th anniversary of Apollo 7. (Apollo 7 landed by water and was also picked up by a Navy ship, the USS Essex.) The ship was officially inaugurated about two years after Schirra's death in 2009, according to Schirra's website.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace