Walter Schirra, Jr. was one of the original seven U.S. astronauts and the only astronaut to fly in all of America’s first three manned space programs; Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.
Born in Hackensack, New Jersey on March 12, 1923, he had “aviation in his blood.” His father was a World War I fighter pilot and both his parents were “barnstormers” in the 1920s, daredevil pilots who gave impromptu air shows across the country. Walter graduated from Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey in 1940. He attended Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology) then received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1942. He graduated three years later in an accelerated World War II class. He first served aboard ships in the Pacific for two years, then returned to Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida for pilot training, earning his wings in 1948.
After flying Navy fighters for three years, he volunteered to serve during the Korean War as an exchange pilot with the 154th Fighter Bomber Squadron, a Texas-based Air National Guard unit. Schirra flew 90 combat missions in the F-84E, shot down two MIG-15s, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. He later served as a test pilot at the Naval Weapons Center, China Lake, California where he took part in the initial development of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and served as chief test pilot on the F7U Cutlass and the FJ3 Furyjet aircraft. Following a flying tour on the carrier USS Lexington and completion of Naval Air Safety School, he graduated in 1958 from the Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland, and remained there to help develop the new F4H “Phantom” fighter. Schirra logged 4,577 hours of flight time and made 267 carrier landings.
Walter Schirra was first launched into space aboard the Sigma 7 capsule by an Atlas rocket on mission MA-8, on October 3, 1962. His main task was to see how well a Mercury capsule could fly using a minimal amount of fuel, but Schirra had three goals of his own that he wanted to accomplish: He was determined to fly the spacecraft by himself and not let Ground Control tell him what to do, to not have any fuel shortages, and to make no piloting errors. Sigma 7 attained a velocity of 17,557 miles per hour and an altitude of 175 statute miles, traveling almost 144,000 statute miles before reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.
Schirra had orbited the earth six times in nine hours and thirteen minutes. During the flight, he conducted experiments and snapped hundreds of pictures of earth and space phenomena. He proved that an astronaut could carefully manage the limited amounts of electricity and maneuvering fuel necessary for longer, more complex flights.
On his second spaceflight, Schirra commanded Gemini VI, flying with astronaut Tom Stafford. They were to have tracked down and docked with an Agena satellite, but the Agena exploded after liftoff on October 25, 1965. The flight plan was changed, calling for Gemini VI to rendezvous with Gemini VII, a fourteen-day flight manned by Frank Borman and James Lovell.
Gemini VII was launched on December 4, 1965. Gemini VI was to take off December 12 but was postponed when the Titan 2 booster rocket engine shut down after ignition. Three days later, Schirra and Stafford finally launched, their mission redesignated Gemini VI-A. They caught up with Gemini VII in Earth orbit, and flew in formation with it, to within one foot, for five hours before separating. After a flight of 25 hours and 51 minutes, Gemini VI-A splashed down safely on December 13, making the first truly accurate re-entry in NASA’s history. The rendezvous of Gemini VII and VI-A was an important step in preparation for any future Apollo moon-landing mission. This joint mission set five records, including the first formation flight of two space vehicles.
Walter Schirra’s third and final space mission was in 1968. After the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee in January 1967, NASA had to retool much of the program for more than a year and a half before attempting the first manned Apollo flight, Apollo 7 on October 11, 1968. Schirra was the Command pilot, Donn F. Eisele the Command Module pilot and Walter Cunningham the Lunar Module pilot. Schirra executed maneuvers enabling crewmembers to perform exercises in transposition and docking and orbit rendezvous with the S-IVB stage from the Saturn IB launch vehicle. Apollo 7 completed eight successful tests and maneuvering ignitions of the service module propulsion engine, measured the accuracy of performance of all spacecraft systems, and provided the first effective television transmission of onboard crew activities.
The mission was a huge success and was known by its crew’s sense of humor in their reports back to Earth, earning them a special Emmy Award for their broadcasts. The crew successfully checked all the Apollo systems, qualifying the spacecraft for moon missions before landing safely in the Atlantic Ocean on October 22, 1968, after a flight of almost eleven days. In his three missions, Captain Schirra spent a total of 12.30 days in space.
Captain Walter Schirra retired from both the Navy and from NASA on July 1, 1969, to venture into business. From 1969 to 1970, he was the president of Regency Investors, Inc., then from 1970 to 1972, was chairman and chief executive officer of the ECOO Corporation. In January of 1973, he was elected vice chairman of the board, SERNCO, Inc. and in July of that year became chairman of the board. In January of 1975, he became director of technology purchase for the Johns-Manville Corporation and in October 1976, was appointed the director of Power Plant and Aerospace Systems for Johns-Manville. In January 1978, Schirra became vice president for development for the Goodwin Company and a year later, he set up his own company, Schirra Enterprises.
Captain Schirra won a number of awards from civilian sources, including the Collier Trophy in 1962; the Kincheloe Award, SETP, in 1963; the Haley Astronautics Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1963, and 1969; and the Harmon International Trophy in 1965. His military decorations include the U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Medal; the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal (three times each); NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal (twice); the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the Philippines Legion of Honor.
In 1984, along with Betty Grissom (Gus Grissom’s widow) and all of the surviving Mercury astronauts, Wally Schirra began the Mercury Seven Foundation to raise money for college scholarships for science and engineering. On May 2, 2007, Captain Wally M. Schirra died of a heart attack while hospitalized in La Jolla, California.