Wally Schirra had the Right Stuff.
He was one of the seven original Mercury astronauts, but more than that he had the reputation of being a troubleshooter. After Scott Carpenter’s troubled Aurora 7 flight, in which he ran short on fuel, failed to complete his entire flight checklist, and overshot his landing spot (resulting in a delay of hours in being picked up), it was Wally Schirra who authored the textbook mission with his Sigma 7 (named after an engineering symbol) flight. As command pilot of Gemini 6, he had the icy cool to remain atop the fuel-laden rocket instead of ejecting after an engine shutdown stopped the launch, making it possible to relaunch days later. When NASA was recovering from the tragic Apollo 1 fire, it was Wally Schirra who captained the successful Apollo 7 flight that put the space program back on track. Had he still been in the space program after the disastrous Challenger and Columbia fights, he most certainly would have been the astronaut you would have wanted flying the shuttle on its comeback missions.
He was one of my favorite astronauts growing up, along with Gordon Cooper, and I’ve had a fondness and admiration for him ever since. He was the first astronaut to fly in all three of the initial NASA programs – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – and he became known to millions of television viewers as Walter Cronkite’s partner on CBS’s manned space coverage. (Who can forget Schirra, choked with emotion, watching the first moon landing with Cronkite?)
In fact, walking on the moon was just about all that Wally Schirra failed to accomplish in his distinguished career. He was an American hero, a pillar of the space program, a true embodiment of the stuff that legends are made of – perhaps not the larger-than-life figure that some cut, but no less heroic for that. He died today in California, the fifth of the Original Seven astronauts to die, and with him dies yet another piece of American history. As their time moves farther and farther from ours, it becomes more of a challenge to keep them and their accomplishments in our memory. A challenge, perhaps, but well worth the effort. R.I.P.