One of the great veterans of the NASA space program, Walter M. "Wally" Schirra, died early Thursday morning at the age of 84. Schirra, who had been battling cancer for several years, succumbed to a heart attack at a hospital near his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
"Today is a sad day for NASA and our country, as we mourn the passing yesterday in California of astronaut Walter 'Wally' Schirra," NASA administrator Mike Griffin said in a statement posted to the agency's Web site. "With Wally's passing, we at NASA note with sorrow the loss of yet another of the pioneers of human spaceflight."
Griffin said that while Schirra had a well-deserved reputation in the NASA community for his sense of humor, his real legacy lies in his decade of service during the space program's earliest days. Schirra was a veteran of not one but three different NASA space programs: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. He also was the only NASA astronaut thus far to command three different spacecraft.
An outstanding pilot, Schirra earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals for his service in the 154th Fighter Bomber Squadron in the Korean War. He then served as a test pilot for the Navy for several years before being selected for the Project Mercury space program in 1959. Three years later, in October 1962, Schirra became the fifth American in space and the third to orbit the Earth.
In 1965, Schirra was chosen to command Gemini 6, one of the critical trial runs in NASA's effort to carry out President Kennedy's goal of putting Americans on the moon. The mission for Gemini 6, which launched on December 15, 1965, was to rendezvous with Gemini 7, which had already been orbiting Earth for a week and a half. The tricky maneuver, which had never been tried before, was a complete success, and helped boost the space agency's confidence for the upcoming moon missions.
Schirra's coolness under pressure and commitment to the space program was amply demonstrated by his next flight in October 1968. Designated as Apollo 7, it was NASA's first orbital launch following the tragic launch pad fire of Apollo 1, which killed three astronauts. The only glitch in Apollo 7's otherwise smooth flight was that all three of the astronauts on board came down with head colds.
'An American Hero'
Schirra retired from NASA and the Navy in 1969, and among other activities, became one of television's first space commentators. He joined famed broadcaster Walter Cronkite during CBS's coverage of the Apollo moon landing in July 1969, and also provide expert commentary for later Apollo flights.
In a statement released by the White House, President George W. Bush praised Schirra for his accomplishments.
"His ventures into space furthered our understanding of manned space flight and helped pave the way for mankind's first journey to the Moon," President Bush said. "Laura [Bush] and I join Wally's family and friends and the NASA community in mourning the loss of an American hero."