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Wally Schirra

Wally Schirra

Godspeed Wally! My granddaughter Alexandria with Astronaut Wally Schirra at the San Diego Aerospace Museum in 2004.   Photo Credit: Mine
May 3, 2007Wally with Lexie

The world lost a great man on May 3, 2007. Walter Marty Schirra Jr. passed away from a heart attack at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, California. Wally was an aviation legend and on of the original seven NASA astronauts.

Wally was born on March 12, 1923 in Hackensack, New Jersey. His father was Walter M. Schirra, Sr. and his mother was Florence Leach Schirra. Wally’s parents were accomplished aviation pioneers in their own right. His father flew combat missions during World War I. After the war Schirra Sr. and his wife teamed up as barnstormers.

Wally’s mother was a wing walker on the barnstorming tours. During one of the meetings that my family had had with Wally he related to us a story about his barnstorming mother. He said that she was still doing wing walking while she was pregnant with him. Wally said that he always joked with Chuck Yeager that since his mother was a pregnant wing walker, it meant that Wally got to fly before Yeager did. Wally was piloting his father’s airplane by the time he was 15 years old.

Wally graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1945. He served aboard the battle cruiser USS Alaska during the final months of World War II. After the war Wally was dispatched to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. There he trained as a pilot and was assigned to a carrier fighter squadron.

During the Korean War, Wally was loaned to the Air Force and dispatched to South Korea. Between 1951 and 1952, Wally flew 90 combat missions. The bulk of those missions were conducted in F84s. Wally received credit for downing one Mig-15 and damaging two others. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with an Oak Leaf Cluster.

After the Korean War, Wally served as a test pilot at Naval Weapons Station China Lake in California. He was involved with the testing of the sidewinder missile. Later he was a test pilot in the program to evaluate the F-4 Phantom fighter for use in the United States Navy.

On April 9, 1959 at a press conference in Washington, Wally announced as one of the original seven NASA astronauts. This group would become known as the Mercury 7.

Wally became the 5th American to fly in space. He was launched in the Sigma 7 Mercury spacecraft on October 3, 1962. His mission lasted for 9 hours, 13 minutes, and 11 seconds. He orbited the Earth for six revolutions.

Wally served on the backup crew for the first manned Gemini flight, Gemini III. Wally was a consummate practical joker. He knew about Gus Grissom’s dislike of space food that he and John Young were supposed to test on Gemini III. Wally had Astronaut Young smuggle a corned beef sandwich from Wolfie’s deli in Cocoa Beach on board the flight to give to Grissom. This humorous incident created quite a flap in Congress, who did not quite appreciate humor in the fledgling space program.

Wally’s second space flight began on December 15th, 1965 with launch of Gemini VI-A. On that mission Wally was the commander and Tom Stafford was the pilot. They accomplished the first rendezvous in space. Their rendezvous target was the Gemini VII spacecraft being flown by Frank Borman and James Lovell.

The first manned Apollo mission to fly was Apollo 7. This mission was commanded by Wally and was launched on a Saturn 1-B on October 11th, 1968. This was Wally’s third flight and made him the first man to fly in space three times. His crew mates on this mission were Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham. The Apollo 7 crew received an Emmy for their live television broadcasts from space.

The Apollo 7 mission was Wally’s last space mission. With his flight in the Apollo spacecraft, Wally became the only astronaut to fly in all of the United States first three types of spacecraft, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.

Wally was without a doubt my favorite astronaut as I was growing up and following NASA’s space missions. I was thrilled when I was finally able to meet him in 1991 at the 30th Anniversary or Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight. Over the next several years, I would have the opportunities for more meetings with Wally.

He gave my family and me a private tour of the San Diego Aerospace Museum in 2004. In 2005, my family and I had a private dinner with Wally and his wife Jo at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California. During these meetings I found that Wally’s humor and wit exceeded my wildest expectations. I miss Wally. To me he will always remain a hero.

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UPDATED : July 13, 2007
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