Archive for May, 2007

Just two left

May 6, 2007

Wally Schirra has died, on May 3rd, aged 84. The fifth American in space, he flew Mercury 8 (Sigma 7), Gemini 6A and Apollo 7, commanding both Gemini and Apollo missions. He was the only one of the Mercury Seven to fly all three pre-shuttle spacecraft. All the missions were successful, firsts in their way. Mercury 8 is described as the first flawless mission, Gemini 6 performed the first rendezvousStafford and Schirra get suited up for Gemini 6 (no docking) with Gemini 7, and Apollo 7 was the first manned flight of the Apollo CSM.

Schirra was well known for his keen sense of humour and clear view of the task of flying safely, eschewing the glamour associated with other Mercury Seven astronauts. He was a superb pilot: once, as a test pilot he out witted a Sidewinder missile he was testing, and which had turned on him, by turning inside the missile’s own path. He flew 90 combat missions in Korea in F84 jets. His cool demeanour was displayed when the rocket engine on his Titan booster for Gemini 6 shut down after lift-off. He, as commander, should have pulled the ejection lever, taking he and Pilot Tom Stafford ‘safely’ away from the exploding rocket. However, as he hadn’t detected any upward motion he stayed put, avoiding the significant risks of ejection. The rocket didn’t explode. The main problem was found to be a plug pulling out too soon and the mission was launched 72 hours later as Gemini 6A.

The Apollo 7 mission in October 1968, the first manned mission after the Apollo 1 fire, was hugely important. Schirra and his crew, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham, were to test the completely redesigned Command Module (and its Service Module, together known as the CSM). Unfortunately the crew all suffered from colds, exacerbated enormously by weightless conditions, and spent much of the mission arguing with Mission Control about workload. None were selected for further missions.

I’m sorry to see another Mercury-Gemini-Apollo astronaut die. The Space Shuttle doesn’t have the romance, the drama, of those missions, perhaps because, for 25 years, it hasn’t really gone anywhere and has been a dead end. I don’t doubt the skill and bravery of the current crop of astronauts though.

Schirra leaves behind only two of the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts: John Glenn, America’s third man in space, and Scott Carpenter, fourth.

Of the moonwalkers, only 9 survive.