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."
His most famous gag came shortly after completing the first rendezvous in space 10 days before Christmas 1965. As Stafford and Capt. Schirra approached the West Coast about 100 miles up, they reported seeing an unidentified flying object to the north, on a collision course with their spacecraft. The ruse continued for a few minutes until Stafford pulled out his string of bells and Capt. Schirra his tiny harmonica, and the pair performed "Jingle Bells." The UFO, they declared, was Santa Claus in his sleigh.
Capt. Schirra was born in Hackensack, N.J. He took his first flight with his barnstorming father at age 13 and learned to fly before he enrolled at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. After his 1945 graduation, Capt. Schirra served with 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.
He said he initially wasn't interested in the space program. However, after being selected for it in 1959, he sailed through the rigorous training with what one reporter called "the ease of preparing for a family picnic."
He was the third American to orbit the Earth (the first two manned Mercury flights were suborbital), circling the globe six times in nine hours. Of the seven original astronauts -- Alan Shephard, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, Donald K. "Deke" Slayton and Capt. Schirra -- the only survivors now are Glenn and Carpenter.
Capt. Schirra was inducted into the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor in 2000.
Survivors include his wife, Josephine Schirra of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.; and two children.
After Capt. Schirra retired from NASA in 1969, having logged 295 hours and 15 minutes in space, he became president of Regency Investors Inc., a Denver-based leasing and finance company, and then chief executive and chairman of ECOO Corp., an environmental control company. He sat on numerous corporate boards. He moved to Rancho Santa Fe, a San Diego suburb, in 1984. He appeared at the Smithsonian in November to talk about the early days of space flight.
In 1981, he was quoted as saying about space: "Mostly it's lousy out there. 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."
In an interview with the Associated Press last month for Earth Day, he said that when looking at the globe from orbit, he was struck by its fragility and its lack of borders. "I left Earth three times, and found no other place to go," he said. "Please take care of Spaceship Earth."