Born Walter Schirra, March 12, 1923, in Hackensack, NJ; died of a heart attack, May 3, 2007, in La Jolla, CA. Astronaut. American astronaut Wally Schirra was a veteran of the first three manned space programs launched by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). One of the original seven astronauts chosen for the first Mercury program, he went on to become the sole Mercury pioneer to participate in both the Gemini andApollo programs as well. Schirra logged a total of almost 300 hours in space, but described space as “a hostile environment, and it’s trying to kill you,” New York Times Richard Goldstein quoted him as saying. “The outside temperature goes from a minus 450 degrees to a plus 300 degrees. You sit in a flying Thermos bottle.”
Born in 1923, Schirra grew up in a family of aviation enthusiasts. His father had been part of the first wave of U.S. military pilots during World War I and, upon returning to civilian life, became a stunt pilot in New Jersey with his wife; Schirra’s mother was a “wing walker” who reportedly performed even before she realized she was pregnant with her son. The future astronaut was 13 years old when he first took the controls of his father’s plane, and had his own pilot’s license by the time he entered the Newark College of Engineering (known today as the New Jersey Science and Technology University) a few years later. When World War II broke out, Schirra enlisted in the naval officers’ training program at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Schirra flew 90 combat missions during the Korean War in the early 1950s, and spent the rest of the decade as a test pilot for the U.S. Navy. In his 2005 memoir of his space career, The Real Space Cowboys (co-authored with Ed Buckbee), he recounted that he had no interest in becoming part of the first U.S. astronaut-training program at NASA. Instead, he recalled, he and a few colleagues were summoned to Washington for a presentation by NASA officials. “We were listening to a pair of engineers and a psychologist describing the feeling when you’re on top of a rocket in a capsule and going around the world,” he wrote in the book, according to the New York Times. “I was immediately looking for the door, and they said, ‘Not to worry, we’ll send a chimpanzee first!’ There’s no way a test pilot would volunteer for something like that.”
Despite his misgivings that the manned flight program was a circus-style exhibition designed to prove U.S. technical superiority over the Soviet Union, Schirra agreed to enter the Mercury training program in 1959 and began the intense physical training regimen with his Mercury teammates, who included John Glenn and Alan Shepard. Schirra’s on-board role was to supervise the astronauts’ life-support systems. In May of 1961, Shepard became the first American in space and, in October of the following year, Schirra became the fifth American in space on the Sigma 7 Mercury craft, which orbited the Earth six times in nine hours. In December of 1965, Schirra piloted the Gemini 6 spacecraft, and, on his last mission in October of 1968, he and his colleagues aboard the Apollo 7 sent back the first televised pictures of the Earth from space.
Schirra retired from NASA a year later and became an executive with a number of business ventures. The writer Tom Wolfe chronicled the men of the Mercury program in his 1979 book, The Right Stuff, which was adapted in 1983 as a film of the same name and featured Lance Henrikson as Schirra. Viewing the Earth from space had profoundly impacted the reluctant astronaut, and Schirra supported a variety of environmental causes for the rest of his life. In one of the last interviews he ever gave—for Earth Day of 2007, just a few days before his death—he asserted that he “left Earth three times, and found no other place to go,” according to the Washington Post. “Please take care of Spaceship Earth.”
Schirra died of a heart attack on May 3, 2007, at a hospital in La Jolla, California. He was 84 years old and is survived by his wife, Josephine, his son, Walter III, and his daughter, Suzanne. Colleagues remember him for his pranks, such as the December of 1965 mission when he briefly alarmed mission control back at NASA headquarters by announcing he had just seen an unidentified flying object with eight lesser “modules” propelling it from the front; NASA ground-control engineers realized the joke when Schirra further noted that the “pilot” of the command vehicle was wearing a red suit. On another occasion, upon returning to Earth, he was asked by reporters what goes through their minds when he and his fellow astronauts are on the launch pad about to blast into space. “You think,” he replied, according to Eric Malnic at the Los Angeles Times, that “all these hundreds of thousands of parts were put together by the lowest bidder.” Sources: Chicago Tribune, May 4, 2007, sec. 3, p. 8; Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2007, p. B10; New York Times, May 4, 2007, p. A25; Real Space Cowboys, Apogee, 2005; Times (London), May 5, 2007, p. 72; Washington Post, May 4, 2007, p. B7.