Wally Schirra’s death on May 3 leaves only John Glenn and Scott Carpenter still living from the original seven Mercury astronauts.
Navy Capt. Walter M. Schirra Jr., who was 84, died of a heart attack at La Jolla, Calif. He also had cancer.
Schirra was the third American to orbit Earth and the fifth in space. His Oct. 3, 1962, Mercury flight of 9 hours, 13 minutes, 11 seconds was considered textbook perfect, as were most things he did. Schirra was the only man to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions.
Schirra’s first flight was with his barnstormer father at the age of 13. He learned to fly before entering the Naval Academy and after his 1945 graduation flew 90 combat missions during the Korean War. When tapped for the space program he said he wasn’t interested, but once convinced to join he sailed through the training with apparent ease.
While known as a prankster, Schirra had his serious test pilot side. Furious about NASA’s decision to launch Apollo 7 despite winds gusting to 20 knots, he wrote a scathing memo accusing the agency of endangering the crew’s lives. The risk particularly galled him because Apollo 7 was to restore faith in the space program following the launch pad fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
Nevertheless, Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham carried out perfect rendezvous exercises and made daily television broadcasts during which they clowned but also educated Earth-bound viewers about space flight, winning an Emmy for their efforts. Schirra had a knack for taking complex engineering and science concepts and explaining them in ways that ordinary people understood easily. Perhaps that is why Walter Cronkite asked to have Schirra at his side during the Apollo moon mission broadcasts.
Schirra retired from NASA in 1969 after logging 295 hours, 15 minutes in space. He then became a successful business executive, sitting on numerous corporate boards, not as a figurehead but as a wise advisor.
In an Associated Press interview a few weeks before his death, he commented that, looking at Earth from orbit, he was struck by its fragility and its lack of visible borders.
“I left Earth three times and found no other place to go,” Schirra said. “Please take care of Earth.”