Wally Schirra wasn’t much of a space man. True, he was the only one of the Mercury Seven to fly in all three of NASA’s early spacecraft—Mercury-Atlas 8, Gemini 6, and Apollo 7. But his roots, and his heart, were in the world of aviation and flight test. His parents had both been barnstormers in the years after World War I. As a Navy pilot, he flew combat missions in Korea and helped wring out the F-4 as a test pilot at Patuxent River, Maryland. Even after joining NASA in 1959, he claimed to be ambivalent about the switch from aviation to spaceflight.
In the 45 years since Schirra’s nine-hour Mercury flight, there have been two kinds of astronauts—those who embrace the wonder of spaceflight and view it as a grand, futuristic adventure, and those who see it as another piloting job, albeit an exotic one. Schirra was more in the second camp.
He had no particular love for orbiting the Earth. In a 1998 NASA interview, he recalled of his Apollo 7 flight, “I was bored to tears up there for 11 days. I mean, bored! Fighter pilots like to fly for an hour, an hour-and-a-half, come back, and do something else. Maybe two flights a day, three flights, then you go to the bar. Unless you’re going to fly it the next day, then you don’t go to the bar. And to sit up there for 11 days, oh, that was so bad! Do you remember those little bands you’d wear around your wristwatch for the calendar? I have that band in a plastic block with 8 of the 11 days scratched off, like a prisoner.”
Schirra had a reputation as a punster and practical joker, but in the dark days following the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, when NASA’s ability to reach the moon was in doubt, the agency turned to the no-nonsense Schirra to command the next mission. His Apollo 7 flight, a critical but not terribly exciting hardware checkout in Earth orbit, was all about engineering discipline. That was Schirra’s real love. Recalling his first spaceflight, he said: “I think probably the best part of my Mercury mission was naming it Sigma 7. Naming it the sum of engineering effort. Not a fancy name like Freedom or Faith or Aurora. Not that I didn’t appreciate those names. But I wanted to prove that it was a team of people working together to make this vehicle go. That’s why I talk so wildly about knowing the engineers, how they were brothers and buddies. And all of them were! And that’s what I saw as the ultimate on that mission, was that [it was] an engineering test flight, where we weren’t going to look around for fireflies. We weren’t going to look for the lights of Perth [Australia]. We weren’t going to give prayers to the peasants below. We were going to make this thing work like a vehicle.”
Right up to his death at the age of 84 on May 3, 2007, Schirra was still putting in public appearances, still telling the same well-worn stories with the same self-deprecating shtick. After all these years, perhaps the most puzzling thing to him and his test-pilot buddies who became the first astronauts was the adulation they received. Recalling the day in 1959 when they were introduced to the world in a group press conference, he said, “Here we are, looking around, somewhat awestricken ourselves, and our local Representative or Senator would come in and salaam practically. I said, ‘My gosh! we’ve joined a whole new world! And we haven’t done a damn thing yet!’ ”
A Schirra Reader
A collection of NASA documents on Walter Schirra’s three spaceflights. Click to link to the Web page or download a PDF document (Most will display in your browser, but if not you can download the Adobe Acrobat reader here.)
Chapter on Schirra’s Mercury (MA-8) flight from NASA history of the Mercury program, This New Ocean.