HOUSTON U.S. space pioneer Wally Schirra, who
helped lead America into the space age as one of the original
Mercury 7 astronauts, has died at the age of 84, NASA said on
Schirra had a heart attack and died early on Thursday at a
hospital near his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California, said
Ruth Varonfakis, a friend and spokeswoman for the San Diego Air
& Space Museum, where Schirra was on the board.
She said he had cancer, but that his family asked her not
to discuss it. NASA said he had died on Wednesday night.
Schirra and his Mercury 7 colleagues captured the nation's
imagination as they flew NASA's earliest flights in the Cold
War space race with the Soviet Union.
NASA promoted them as all-American heroes with the "right
stuff" to go into the unexplored darkness of space aboard
Schirra, the only astronaut to fly on Mercury, Gemini and
Apollo flights, was the third American into space when he
orbited Earth six times in an October 1962 Mercury flight.
In December 1965, he and Thomas Stafford flew on Gemini 6,
which included a space rendezvous with Gemini 7.
Schirra never got to the moon, but his Apollo 7 mission in
October 1968 paved the way for the subsequent moon missions.
It also was the first flight after the Apollo 1 tragedy in
January 1967 in which three astronauts burned to death in their
space capsule on the launch pad.
Apollo 7 was the last flight for Schirra and his two crew
mates, Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele, who all had colds
during the flight and refused to wear helmets on re-entry
because they wanted to be able to blow their noses.
Schirra, who was born in Hackensack, New Jersey on March
12, 1923, was a Navy test pilot when he joined NASA in April
The Mercury 7 astronauts were Schirra, Gordon Cooper, John
Glenn, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, Alan Shepherd and Scott
Only Glenn, 85, and Carpenter, 82, are still alive.
"With the passing of Wally Schirra, we at NASA note with
sorrow the loss of yet another of the pioneers of human space
flight," said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin in a
statement. "We who have inherited the space program will always
be in his debt."
He was known not only for his competence as a pilot and
astronaut, but as a jokester and storyteller who had the
nickname "Jolly Wally."
NASA said one of his best known anecdotes arose from the
constant examinations and demands for bodily fluids from the
Mercury 7 as they trained to go to space.
"When one nurse insisted he provide a urine sample, Schirra
reportedly filled a five-gallon jug with warm water, detergent
and iodine and left it on her desk," NASA said in a press
In an interview done in January and aired Thursday on NASA
television, Schirra said space exploration was spurred by human
"It's an urge, a pioneering urge. We humans like that," he
said. "We feel very uplifted by exploration and I think that's
probably what made us want to go to the moon."
Schirra retired from NASA in 1969 and joined CBS News,
where he worked alongside newscaster Walter Cronkite to cover
the Apollo missions to the moon.