Veteran Astronaut Wally Schirra Launches into Cyberspace

WallySchirra, the original astronaut with the 'rightstuff' to fly all three of the United States' early spacecraft, has recentlylaunched his first mission into cyberspace: the debut of WallySchirra.com (http://www.wallyschirra.com).

"Iwas told having a website would help me [handle my] autographs andspeeches," explained Schirra in a phoneinterview with collectSPACE. "I have yet tofigure out why my life story needs to be on the web, but they tell me that'sneeded."

Schirra's story, whichhe shared on the pages of his 1988 book Schirra's Space,is that of a Navy test pilot turned all-American hero as one of the nation'sfirst astronauts. He commanded the third orbital Mercury flight Sigma 7 fornine hours and six orbits before performing the first pin- point landing in thePacific, a mere 9,000 yards from the recovery vessel.

Threeyears later in 1965, Schirra was back in space, thistime accompanied by Tom Stafford aboard the two-seater Gemini 6 spacecraft.When the flight's target vehicle was lost during launch, the mission wasrepurposed to perform the first space rendezvous between manned vehicles. Itwas a crucial milestone toward the goal of a lunar landing.

Schirra's third andfinal mission was even more important. Following the tragic loss of threeastronauts--including Schirra's Mercury classmateVirgil 'Gus' Grissom--during a pad fire, NASA overhauled the Apollo spacecraft.The program's first 'return to flight' fell to Schirra'scommand with Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele. Despite suffering from a cold he developed over the11 day, 1968 mission, Schirra and his crew put the"Block 2" Command Module through its paces, returning NASA on a pathto the Moon.

Today,as the space agency prepares Shuttle Discovery for its return to flight afterthe loss of Columbiain 2003, as well as plot a new course back to the Moon, Schirra'sstory is once again the stuff of headlines, which may help explain theunexpected popularity of his new website.

Schirra has so far been impressed with theresponse to his new website: "I was quite surprised; over 100,000 visitorsthey tell me."

The"they" Schirra speaks of is primarily hiswebmaster Tracy Kornfeld, a Connecticut-based websitedeveloper who builds intricate models of spacecraft in his free time.

"Imet Tracy at anautograph show and we became fast friends. He had built a model of the Mercurycapsule with its launch tower which I fell in love with."

"Hesuggested I needed a website and that's how we got started," tells Schirra.

Fromthere, Kornfeld set about gathering content for thesite, including biographical data and videos, as well as a growing collectionof anecdotes detailing the "Gotcha's" -practical jokes - Schirra infamously pulled on hisfriends, colleagues and crewmates.

"Thereare many more [Gotcha's] to share," says Schirra. "[Alan] Shepard and I swapped [Gotcha's] and who was on the winning and losing end. I willprobably add more to the site as time goes on."

"Likethe one about Shepard, who was driving down to the Capein a Corvette. Shepard was going from Orlandoto Cocoa Beach when he had a traffic light racewith a pretty young girl in a Triumph, a TR3. He got a [speeding] ticket andnot long after we heard it on the radio news. So we went down to Cocoa Beachwhere we knew Shepard was going to arrive and got a TR3 decal to put on hiscar, like fighter pilots decorate their cockpits with the insignia of a downedenemy. That's the [type] of games we played."

Schirra says he willlet readers decide the future direction of the website, and feedback hasalready begun.

"Manyof the astronauts' wives have asked why Jo [my wife] isn't featured on thereand I have to work on that. We have been together 59 years, we're in arut," Schirra laughs. "She likes to say Iwas away half the time."

Alsocoming to WallySchirra.com is information about an upcoming book Schirra and Ed Buckbee havewritten.

"Its going to be a fun book. Ed was number one next to[rocket pioneer Wernher] von Braun for security andspecial events. He knew von Braun better than any of us. We all fell in lovewith von Braun," Schirra recalled.

"Edjust showed me a very interesting document: how von Braun made a presentationto NASA two weeks after the moon landing about how to go to Mars. We will referto it in The Real Space Cowboys(Apogee Books, 2005) and if we can, possibly include it on a CD [with thebook].

"I'vealways felt that von Braun has never gotten enough credit. In my book Schirra's Space, I describe how he was adamant tofirst have an Earth orbit station to go the Moon and then return to, avoidinghaving to go through a monstrous reentry. We probably wouldn't have achievedthe win over the Russians had we used that approach but can you imagine thespace station we would have today?

"I'vealways thought 'space station' is a great name. It should be like a gas stationwhere we go for service and supplies before heading further out."

Schirra's opinions onthe future do not stop at the station.

Speaking of the President's proposed Vision for SpaceExploration, he said, "I don't particularly go along with going to Moonfirst to build a launch pad to go to Mars. We should go [to Mars] fromEarth orbit. Once you are in Earth orbit all the work is done. They say we needto go to the Moon to practice going to Mars. We have already been to the Moon;we've already practiced."

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