Walter Schirra; Fifth Astronaut in Space

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

Walter M. Schirra Jr., 84, one of the original seven astronauts and the only man to fly in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs, died of a heart attack May 3 at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, Calif. He also had cancer.

The quick-witted Navy captain, who was known as Wally, was the fifth American in space at a time when NASA's manned space program was young and untested. His Oct. 3, 1962, Mercury flight, which lasted 9 hours, 13 minutes and 11 seconds, was considered textbook-perfect. The capsule splashed down only 4.5 miles from the aircraft carrier Kearsarge in the Pacific Ocean.

But his next mission, as commander of Gemini 6, started badly. The launch was aborted once after an unmanned satellite blew up in space, where Gemini 6 was supposed to rendezvous with it. The mission was delayed a second time when the Titan II engines beneath the space capsule ignited at countdown and then shut down.

For several heart-stopping minutes, Capt. Schirra and astronaut Tom Stafford, sitting atop a highly explosive mass of rocket fuel, chose not to pull the ejection handle, which would have scrapped the mission. It was a calculated risk. Capt. Schirra trusted that the booster rocket would not explode and that the first attempt to rendezvous with another spacecraft, Gemini 7, could still occur. The risk paid off, and three days later, the launch was successful.

Asked later what he thought while sitting on the launchpad, Capt. Schirra replied, "This was all put together by the lowest bidder."

His last space mission, Apollo 7, which launched Oct. 11, 1968, was the first for NASA after three astronauts were killed in a launchpad fire in 1967. Apollo 7 was celebrated for restoring Americans' faith in the space program, but Capt. Schirra filed a complaint about the decision to launch in winds that gusted to 22 mph.

Despite developing bad head colds, the three astronauts became known for their daily 10-minute television shows from orbit, during which they clowned around, held up humorous signs and generally educated television viewers back on Earth about spaceflight. They received an Emmy Award for those performances. They also exhausted their supply of prescription Actifed, and when that cold medicine became an over-the-counter medication in 1983, Capt. Schirra became one of its celebrity pitchmen.

But the takeoff so angered Capt. Schirra that he wrote a memo accusing the Apollo spacecraft manager of endangering the crew's lives. That was unusual for Capt. Schirra, whose personality was "fun and effervescent," said Roger Launius, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's curator of space history and the former chief historian at NASA.

"I think what you're seeing here is the serious side of him, demonstrating his capability as a test pilot and astronaut who didn't agree with the decision," Launius said.

Most of the time, Capt. Schirra was a gregarious and garrulous public figure. "He was able to take complex engineering and scientific ideas and translate that to something that was understandable," Launius said.That made him an excellent color commentator on CBS, working with anchorman Walter Cronkite during the broadcast of the first Apollo moon landing.

On his Mercury flight, Capt. Schirra smuggled a corned beef sandwich in his flight suit. A well-known practical joker, Capt. Schirra "was quite popular," wrote author Tom Wolfe in "The Right Stuff," his 1973 book about the original seven Mercury astronauts.

"He was a stocky fellow with a big, wide-open face who was given to pranks, cosmic winks, fast cars. . . . A smile about a foot wide would spread over his face and his cheekbones would well up into a pair of cherub bellies, St. Nicholas style, and an incredible rocking-druid laugh would come shaking and rumbling up from his rib cage and he'd say 'Gotcha!' Schirra's gotchas were famous. Wally was one of the people who didn't mind showing their emotions, happiness, rage, frustration, whatever. But in the air he was as cool as they made them."

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