Astronaut Wally Schirra Crosses Final Frontier - InformationWeek

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5/4/2007
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Astronaut Wally Schirra Crosses Final Frontier

Schirra, who died Thursday, was one of the pioneers of space travel and the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

One of the Real Space Cowboys has died.

Walter "Wally" M. Schirra Jr. died Thursday morning of a heart attack in a California hospital at the age of 84.

Schirra, known to many by a self-selected nickname, Captain Skyray, was one of the pioneers of space travel and the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. He commanded the Gemini 6 mission, carried out the first rendezvous in space, and was portrayed in the movie The Right Stuff2007.

President George W. Bush issued a statement praising Schirra for paving the way for lunar exploration and saying he and his family members are mourning the "loss of an American hero."

NASA introduced Schirra and six others to the public as the world's first astronauts on April 19, 1959. During a press conference that day, and several times afterward, Schirra said he saw space travel as another step in exploration, which he believed was part of human nature and mankind's destiny.

It certainly seemed a natural progression for Schirra, who was born March 12, 1923, to a World War I fighter pilot and barnstormer father and a wing-walking mother in Hackensack, N.J.

Schirra had flown his father's biplane before being appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1942. Soon, he received a bachelor's degree and an assignment on the armored battle cruiser Alaska.

In 1946, he married Josephine Fraser and was assigned to the 7th Fleet in the Pacific. He completed pilot's training at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida two years after that and became a naval aviator. He served as a fighter pilot and flew with the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He flew 90 combat missions as a jet fighter and served as a test pilot.

He was a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, writing about a Mach 1 airplane called the Skyray when he was invited to the selection process for choosing the world's first voyagers to outer space.

At 36, he was the father of an 18-month-old daughter, Suzanne, and an 8-year-old boy, Walter M. Schirra III. He told reporters that some people he knew questioned his involvement in the new space exploration program, calling it "idiotic." He said he entered the screening process reluctantly and questioned his own intelligence before deciding that it was a professional program, deserving of confidence.

Other times, he joked about being assured that chimpanzees or monkeys would go first.

"I knew I wanted out of there then," he joked at a Naval Aviation symposium in 2002.

Schirra told reporters that he and the other astronauts had envisioned themselves pushing the limits of possibility, thanks in part to exposure to Jules Verne, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon.

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