Touring the San Diego Aerospace
Museum with Wally Schirra
Lexie, me, and Astronaut Wally Schirra at the San Diego Aerospace Museum
Gemini and Mercury space suits on
Wally with Lexie in the astronaut
Full size Gemini spacecraft mockup
Sopwith Pup engine compartment
Sopwith Pup pilot
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,
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.
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.
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
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
restaurant in Lake Forest, Illinois.
last remaining experience was a museum tour of the San DiegoAerospaceMuseum with
Astronaut Wally Schirra.It took way too
long for me to fit this into my schedule, but I was finally able to
in.Through the Astronaut Scholarship
foundation I was able to set it up for July 30th,
in the afternoon.
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.
flight into Los AngelesInternationalAirport 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
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.
but free.The traffic situation at
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
of the scenery between Los Angeles and San Diego are not much
to write home about.However, as you get
closer to San
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.
arrived at our hotel shortly before .We were
tired and hungry.The hotel was the
Holiday Inn at MissionBeach 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
Friday, July 30th,
was the day for the tour of the museum with Mr. Schirra.We had breakfast at the hotel and then drove
down to BalboaPark where the
museum is located.The park is a
wonderful place.It encompasses many
museums and is next to the San Diego Zoo.
we were early for our tour with Wally, we toured the JapaneseFriendshipGarden.It was a
really nice Japanese garden, but we
were surprised that it was not bigger.They
had a really nice koi pond.
highlight of this garden though was seeing a wild humming bird feeding
nectar of flowers. We actually got to see the humming bird land on a
one point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a humming bird before where its
was a nice snack shop associated with the garden were you could get a
sit down to relax.It was very pleasant.
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.”
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.
the time approached 1:00 PM we headed over to the aerospace museum. We
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.
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.
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
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
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
actually saw it on display there.Wally
informed me that the museum in Jackson has closed down.
we were looking at the display, I pulled out an artifact that I had
along. This artifact was a fireproof card that was from the set of
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
actually came from his collection. I had acquired it through Odyssey
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
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
Auctions where the item sold.That
statement attested to the
fact that the card had been flown and that it had come from his
did not mention this signed statement to Wally.
told Wally that I did not think that this particular card made it on to
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
then brought out a flown “Turtles” flag from Apollo 7 that came from
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.
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
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
as sharp as Wally and Don are.
with Wally, I detected some animosity from him towards his Apollo 7
Walt Cunningham.I told Wally that his
spaceship, the Apollo 7 command module, was on display in Dallas, Texas
the Frontiers of Flight Museum.
said he was aware of that and he was disappointed when they were not
obtain it for display at the San Diego Aerospace Museum. I told Wally
was my impression that Walt Cunningham’s wife Dot had a big part in
Apollo 7 command module on display in Dallas.
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.
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
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
outlook on life from a person who has cheated death many times.
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
was to actually warp the surface of the wings to turn right or left.
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.
I stepped away from the aircraft following my warping experience, Wally
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.
Sopwith Pup replica was on display with a mannequin dressed in a
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
we ate a lot better then they did back then.
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
down twice, and destroyed an observation balloon.
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
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.
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
thought he had won that competition but Wally informed Yeager that he
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
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
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.
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
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
afternoon.He was headed back to his
home in Rancho Santa Fe.
asked Wally if he would mind taking his picture with us in front of the
Mercury spaceship replica that the museum had.He
was happy to oblige.I
enlisted Don as the photographer but he misunderstood and became the
taking one photo with Don in it, I asked him if we could swap places so
would take a photo with me in it.He did
and after some instruction on the operation of the camera; the photo
Wally left us, I asked him to sign a leather bound copy of the book,
Stuff.”Wally like the leather bound
copy of the book and decided to sign next to the spot where Chuck
signed.Underneath his signature Wally
wrote, “Left-handed”.He said that drove
the author, Tom Wolfe, crazy.