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Wally Schirra

Touring the San Diego Aerospace Museum with Wally Schirra
Photo Credits: Mine
Mary,  Lexie, Me, and Wally Schirra at the San Diego Aerospace Museum
Mary, Lexie, me, and Astronaut Wally Schirra at the San Diego Aerospace Museum
Gemini and Mercury space suits on display at the San Diego Aerospace Museum
Wally with Lexie in the astronaut portrait gallery
Gemini and Mercury space suits on display Wally with Lexie in the astronaut portrait gallery
Full size mockup of Gemini space crart
Full size Gemini spacecraft mockup
Sopwith Pup engine compartment
Sopwith Pup pilot
Sopwith Pup engine compartment Sopwith Pup pilot
Ford Tri-motor on display at the San Diego Aerospace Museum
Ford Tri-motor on display in the San Diego Aerospace Museum Atrium
On July 30th, 2004 my wife Mary, my grand daughter Lexie and I tour the San Diego Aerospace Museum with Astronaut Wally Schirra.  This is my account of that museum tour.

Thursday, July 29th, 2004

On this day, Mary, Lexie, and I flew to Los Angeles, California.  The purpose of our trip was to complete the grand slam of space experiences.

In May of 2003, at the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation auction in Washington, DC, I was the winning bidder on some of the auction lots.  Four of these lots were experiences with astronauts.  It took over a year for me to be able to work all of these events into my schedule.

The first experience was being the guest of Mercury and Gemini Astronaut Gordon Cooper at the Gala Premier of the re-release of the movie, “The Right Stuff” in Hollywood, California. The second experience was being the guest of Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter at the 2003 Astronaut Hall of Fame Induction Gala Dinner in Titusville, Florida.  The third experience was a private dinner with Jim and Marilyn Lovell at the Lovell’s restaurant in Lake Forest, Illinois.

The last remaining experience was a museum tour of the San Diego Aerospace Museum with Astronaut Wally Schirra.  It took way too long for me to fit this into my schedule, but I was finally able to work it in.  Through the Astronaut Scholarship foundation I was able to set it up for July 30th, 2004 at 1:00 PM in the afternoon.

We flew out to Los Angeles on Thursday evening, July 29th.   Our motivation to fly into Los Angeles instead directly into San Diego was airline ticket pricing.  For us to fly into San Diego from Dallas would have cost more the one hundred dollars extra per ticket.  For that kind of money, it made economical sense to rent a car and drive down to San Diego from Los Angeles.

Our flight into Los Angeles International Airport was good.  The only surprise on the trip was that we flew on a 757 instead of a 767.  When we booked the flight it was listed as being on a 767.  The weather in Dallas was fairly rainy on Thursday though, so it appears that they did some shuffling of the equipment.

We got our rental car and headed out of the airport.  Unfortunately there were not any good signs for directions, so we started out going in the wrong direction.  After determining we were in error, we corrected our heading.

Freeways in Los Angeles are anything but free.  The traffic situation at 6:30 PM was horrible.  It easily added 30 minutes on to our two hour journey.  Finally we did get past the traffic tie ups and got up to a more reasonable driving speed.

Parts of the scenery between Los Angeles and San Diego are not much to write home about.  However, as you get closer to San Diego, the scenery is pretty nice.  There are mountains to see and you get glimpses of the Pacific Ocean.  On thing that this drive makes you realize is the sheer number of people that must live in California.

We arrived at our hotel shortly before 9 PM.  We were tired and hungry.  The hotel was the Holiday Inn at Mission Beach near the sports arena.  The hotel itself was not very impressive and was terribly overpriced.  We did select it though, because it was the only non-smoking room that we could find in the area.  I was a little tardy in making our reservations for this trip and the best hotels were already taken.

Friday, July 30th, 2004

This was the day for the tour of the museum with Mr. Schirra.  We had breakfast at the hotel and then drove down to Balboa Park where the museum is located.  The park is a wonderful place.  It encompasses many museums and is next to the San Diego Zoo.

Since we were early for our tour with Wally, we toured the Japanese Friendship Garden.  It was a really nice Japanese garden, but we were surprised that it was not bigger.  They had a really nice koi pond.

The highlight of this garden though was seeing a wild humming bird feeding on the nectar of flowers. We actually got to see the humming bird land on a branch at one point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a humming bird before where its wings weren’t moving.

There was a nice snack shop associated with the garden were you could get a drink and sit down to relax.  It was very pleasant.

Balboa Park has many buildings with marvelous architecture and carvings.  These buildings were used for the filming of Xanadu estate in the classic movie, “Citizen Kane.”

We did a little sightseeing around the buildings and inside a botanical garden.  They had Venus fly traps actually growing outdoors.  That should give you some idea about the climate of San Diego.

As the time approached 1:00 PM we headed over to the aerospace museum. We were supposed to meet Wally at the front entrance there.  I wanted to make sure that we were actually at the right place, so I sent Mary over to the ticket counter to confirm.  It was the right location.  We sat down for a while underneath the museum’s SR-71 Blackbird which is on display outside.

One O’clock arrived so we went over to stand near the museum entrance.  I spotted Wally walking towards the museum and he was looking off to the side, as if he was looking for us.  I went out to meet him and introduced myself.  I realized then that he wasn’t actually looking for us as he looked off to the side.  What he was looking at was two Sports Utility Vehicles parked on the lawn by a local car dealer as an advertisement.

Wally wasn’t too happy about the vehicles being there.  At the time, I just didn’t realize how serious he was about this distraction.   We went into the museum and Wally spoke with the workers there to get connected with the docent who would be leading the four of us on our tour of the museum.

The docent that would accompany us on our tour was named Don.  Don was a wealth of information about the aircraft on display in the aerospace museum.  Several of the aircraft on display dated back to the very first days of flight.

At the start of the tour Don showed us the Apollo 9 command module “Gumdrop”.  Gumdrop was recently introduced at its new home in the San Diego Aerospace Museum.  Previously it had been in a museum in Jackson, Michigan.  It had been there for many years and I actually saw it on display there.  Wally informed me that the museum in Jackson has closed down.

While we were looking at the display, I pulled out an artifact that I had brought along. This artifact was a fireproof card that was from the set of cards used by the Apollo 7 crew during their live broadcasts from space.  The card was hand printed and had on it a pair of dice with the phrase, “You Bet Your Life.”  I asked Wally if he remembered the card.

Wally's eyes got big and he asked me if I was able to authenticate this card. I told him that this card actually came from his collection. I had acquired it through Odyssey Auctions back in the early 90s.  Wally looked puzzled.  He did not remember selling this item at the auction.  I was hoping to get a photo of Wally holding it.  However that did not seem appropriate in light of his lack of recognition of the item. It was an awkward moment.

I already had full documentation that the item came from Schirra's collection. In 1995, I obtained a type written statement signed by Wally through Odyssey Auctions where the item sold.  That statement attested to the fact that the card had been flown and that it had come from his collection. I did not mention this signed statement to Wally.

I told Wally that I did not think that this particular card made it on to any of the Apollo 7 television broadcasts.  I asked him if he remembered why it did not.  My theory was that NASA deemed the phrase too controversial.  Unfortunately Wally was not able shed any light on this.  He said that the only thing he could think of was that they could not fit it into the timeline.

I then brought out a flown “Turtles” flag from Apollo 7 that came from Wally’s collection in the Odyssey Auction.  Again Wally did not recognize it.  I explained its origin and said that I thought it had come from his collection which I knew to be true.  Again Wally was puzzled. Wally’s comment was that it must have come from Walt Cunningham.  Cunningham, he said, sold off a bunch of stuff from the flight.

I allowed our conversation about Apollo 7 artifacts to lapse. Wally used the term "senior moment" earlier on our tour when with talking with Don about their memories as octogenarians.  Wally said that he was 81 years old.  Don was two years older so that made him 83.  I can only hope that if I ever reach this grand old age that I am at least half as active and half as sharp as Wally and Don are.

Talking with Wally, I detected some animosity from him towards his Apollo 7 crewmate Walt Cunningham.  I told Wally that his spaceship, the Apollo 7 command module, was on display in Dallas, Texas now at the Frontiers of Flight Museum.

Wally said he was aware of that and he was disappointed when they were not able to obtain it for display at the San Diego Aerospace Museum. I told Wally that it was my impression that Walt Cunningham’s wife Dot had a big part in getting the Apollo 7 command module on display in Dallas.

What Wally then had to say took me by surprise. I was amazed at Wally’s bluntness.  I knew that after Apollo 7, there was some animosity between Schirra and Cunningham.  I had assumed over the years that those feelings had mellowed.  Apparently not all of them have.

Don showed us one early aircraft that was flown in the San Diego area.  This aircraft crashed and took the life of its pilot.  Wally’s dry comment upon hearing the story of this tragedy was, “Well, that took the fun out of that.”

During the tour, this became Wally’s catch phrase.  Any time that Don told us about a plane crash that took the life of the pilot, Wally’s response was, “That took the fun out of that.”  I could tell that Wally meant no disrespect by this phrase and he was not making light of the situation. It was just the outlook on life from a person who has cheated death many times.

As we progressed on our tour, Don asked me if I was a wing warper.  Frankly, I had no idea what Don was talking about.  Don pointed to a vintage 1911 aircraft from France and told me that the method used for steering back then was to actually warp the surface of the wings to turn right or left.

Much to my surprise Don opened the museum barrier protecting the aircraft and allowed me to walk over to the cockpit.  He told me to turn the steering wheel.  I turned it gingerly, so as not to damage this historic artifact.  As I turned the wheel, I could see the surfaces of the wings changing shape.

When I stepped away from the aircraft following my warping experience, Wally came over to me and said, “That was a really special experience.”  He was right.  I don’t think Wally ever has had the privilege of warping the wings on that historic aircraft.

A Sopwith Pup replica was on display with a mannequin dressed in a vintage flight suit.  Wally remarked, “Look how small those people were back then.  I have the flying boots from when my dad was a pilot and I can’t even fit into them.  I told Wally that it probably was a sign that we ate a lot better then they did back then.

Wally was full of stories about is father.  I had no idea before this tour that Wally’s father was an aviation pioneer in his own right.  Wally’s father was a fighter pilot in World War I.  I asked Wally if his father had scored any kills and he said he shot down a couple, was shot down twice, and destroyed an observation balloon.

Wally then related a clever tactic that his father utilized in World War I.  Wally said that the old planes turn really sharply in one direction due to the torque from the engine but turn really poorly in the other direction due to the opposite torque effect.  He said that his father reversed his engine.  So the enemy pilots expecting Wally’s father to turn slowly to the left were surprised by the agility exhibited by his father.

The information, to me was the highlight of this tour.  I knew quite a bit about Wally and his career, but this information about his father was totally new for me.  Wally said that he went on a fishing trip with Chuck Yeager and they were jawing about who flew in an airplane first.

Yeager thought he had won that competition but Wally informed Yeager that he was in error.  Wally’s parents were barnstormers after the war.  His mother was actually flying in the air shows when she was pregnant with Wally.  Yeager conceded that Wally had won that point.

Don showed us a basket from a World War I observation balloon.  He asked Lexie if she knew what the purpose of the thing hanging from the bottom of the balloon was.  Lexie’s response was that this was a parachute.  Don was impressed.  He said that he had asked children this question numerous times, but Lexie was the first one to answer it correctly.

There was a model of a Concorde Super Sonic Transport on display.  I mentioned to Wally that one of my regrets was never having flown on that aircraft.  Wally’s response was that before they started building the Concorde, he told them the Concorde would never be a money making proposition.

He contrasted this with the Boeing 747 which he praised.  He mentioned that he and his wife once had a flight on a Boeing 747 to Italy.  The only two passengers on that flight were Wally and his wife.  He said that this flight was still profitable because of the cargo that the 747 was carrying.  Wally’s opinion was that hauling cargo was where the profit was.

Our time window with Wally was limited to two hours for this tour.  His motivation for a departure no later than 3 PM was traffic.  He said that the traffic situation gets really bad going north from San Diego in the late afternoon.  He was headed back to his home in Rancho Santa Fe.

I asked Wally if he would mind taking his picture with us in front of the Sigma 7 Mercury spaceship replica that the museum had.  He was happy to oblige.  I enlisted Don as the photographer but he misunderstood and became the center of the photo.

After taking one photo with Don in it, I asked him if we could swap places so that he would take a photo with me in it.  He did and after some instruction on the operation of the camera; the photo came out fine.

Before Wally left us, I asked him to sign a leather bound copy of the book, “The Right Stuff.”  Wally like the leather bound copy of the book and decided to sign next to the spot where Chuck Yeager had signed.  Underneath his signature Wally wrote, “Left-handed”.  He said that drove the author, Tom Wolfe, crazy.

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UPDATED : February  12, 2007
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