Friday, May 4, 2007

Astronaut Wally Schirra Has Died

Yesterday the world marked the death of Wally Schirra. He was America's fifth astronaut to go into space during the Mercury space program, flew on the Gemini and Apollo programs, flew jets in the Korean war, was a businessman, and worked as an aerospace engineer. He was 84.

Of course there's a sadness about it. This is the only astronaut to have flown for "the big three" programs: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but I feel a certain gladness that he lived long enough to see SkyLab, the shuttle program, numerous exciting unmanned probe missions to the other planets in the solar system, the Hubble space telescope, the implementation of the International Space Station, the first private space program (SpaceShipOne and Virgin Galactic), and now the (hopefully) creation of a manned mission to Mars.

Wally Schirra (pronounced "shuh-rah") was born in 1923 to a father who was a barnstormer and WWI flying ace and a mother who was a wing-walker. Wally was flying his father's plane by the time he was 15. After studying at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Shirra served with the Navy at the end of WWII, then went on to fly jets after the war, the first pilot to log over 1000 hours in jets. When the Korean war broke out, he went "on loan" to the Air Force and flew 90 missions, downing a MiG-15 and damaging two others. After the war, he helped develop the sidewinder missile and worked as a test pilot (where he earned the nickname of "Skyray" after the name of one of the planes).

What he is best known for, of course, is his time at NASA, where he was known to cut the stressful moments with laughter and joking, earning him another nickname ("Jolly Wally"). He used his engineering to develop the environmental systems and spacesuits, then piloted the Mercury 8 spacecraft in October of 1962, orbiting the earth 6 times. In December of 1965, he continued his space experience by flying with Tom Stafford in Gemini 6A, rendezvousing in space with Lovell and Borman in Gemini 7. His last flight into space was onboard Apollo 7, the first manned flight of the program, with Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham. They docked with their Saturn 1-B launch vehicle and took video of the flight (which, interestingly, earned him an Emmy!).

After his space years, Wally continued as a news consultant to Walter Cronkite and as a spokesman for Actifed (which he had taken to relieve a cold for the Apollo 7 mission).

He went on to be CEO, board president, or director of a number of engineering, energy, and investment corporations.

I highly encourage you tens of readers to visit Schirra's web page: There you can find an interesting 30-minute video ("Skyray – the movie) where he tells his own story. The site also has interesting videos by him and written descriptions of his missions and thoughts.

Well, Wally, you are a blaze of glory in the annals of American heroes. Maybe, if your family cremates you, you can join your old pal Gordo up in orbit again.

Thank you, Jolly Wally.

Update (5/21/07): A memorial service was held today for Shirra, with many astronauts showing their respects, including Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, Gemini astronauth Thomas Stafford, and Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan:

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