HOUSTON (Reuters) - 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 Thursday.
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 still-experimental rockets.
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 1959.
The Mercury 7 astronauts were Schirra, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, Alan Shepherd and Scott Carpenter.
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 release.
In an interview done in January and aired Thursday on NASA television, Schirra said space exploration was spurred by human nature.
“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.