Astronaut Walter Schirra Dies at 84
Thursday, May 3, 2007; 9:46 PM
SAN DIEGO -- Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr., who as one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts combined the Right Stuff _ textbook-perfect flying ability and steely nerves _ with a pronounced rebellious streak, died Thursday at 84.
He was the only astronaut to fly in all three of NASA's original manned spaceflight programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Although he never walked on the moon, Schirra laid some of the groundwork that made the lunar landings possible and won the space race for the United States.
Schirra died of a heart attack at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, said Ruth Chandler Varonfakis, a family friend and spokeswoman for the San Diego Aerospace Museum.
In 1962, the former Navy test pilot became the fifth American in space _ behind Alan Shepard, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter _ and the third American to orbit the Earth, circling the globe six times in a flight that lasted more than nine hours.
Schirra returned to space in 1965 as commander of Gemini 6. Some 185 miles above Earth, he guided his two-man capsule to within a few feet of Gemini 7 in the first rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit.
On his third and final flight, aboard Apollo 7 in 1968, he helped set the stage for the landing of men on the moon during the summer of 1969.
An inveterate prankster, he could be grumpy and recalcitrant in space, most famously during his Apollo mission.
But "on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, he flew all three and did not make a mistake," said Christopher Kraft, who was Schirra's Mercury and Gemini flight director and later head of NASA's Johnson Space Center. "He was a consummate test pilot. The job he did on all three was superb."
President Bush said in a statement Thursday that he and his wife were saddened by the death of "Jolly Wally."
"His ventures into space furthered our understanding of manned space flight and helped pave the way for mankind's first journey to the moon," he said. "Laura and I join Wally's family and friends and the NASA community in mourning the loss of an American hero."
Of the Mercury Seven, only Glenn and Carpenter are still alive.
Schirra was named one of the Mercury Seven in 1959. Supremely confident, he sailed through rigorous astronaut training with what one reporter called "the ease of preparing for a family picnic."