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Walter M. Schirra, Jr.
by Tara Gray

Photo of Schirra

Walter Marty Schirra, Jr. (Captain, USN, Ret.), was born on March 12, 1923, in Hackensack, New Jersey, to parents Walter Marty Sr. and Florence Shillito (Leach) Schirra. His father, an engineering graduate of Columbia University with Royal Canadian Air Force Flight training, was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps. He flew bombing and reconnaissance missions over Germany during World War I, and after the war he barnstormed at county fairs around New Jersey as a stunt flier with his wife, who sometimes stood on the wing of his biplane.1 Schirra is married to the former Josephine Cook "Jo" Fraser of Seattle, Washington, the step-daughter of Admiral James L. Holloway (USN, Ret.) who was Commander-in-Chief of the Northeastern Atlantic and Mediterranean area.2

Schirra graduated from Dwight W. Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey, in June 1940. He studied aeronautical engineering at the Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology) from 1940 to 1942. In 1942, he was appointed to the United States Naval Academy and received a Bachelor of Science degree on June 6, 1945. Upon graduation he was commissioned in the Navy as an ensign and assigned to the armored battle cruiser Alaska, which was bound for Japan, but the war had ended by the time he arrived. On February 23, 1946, he was married and later that year he was assigned to the staff of the 7th Fleet in the Pacific in China, and in 1948, after completing pilot's training at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida, he was designated a naval aviator and assigned to Fighter Squadron 71. As an exchange pilot with the 154th Fighter Bomber Squadron during the Korean War, he flew 90 combat missions in F-84E jets—mainly low-level bombing and ground-strafing operations. He was credited with downing at least one MiG fighter and possibly a second one.3

From 1952 to 1954, Schirra served as a test pilot at the Naval Ordnance Training Station at China Lake, California, where he took part in the development of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile.4 During one test flight, after he had launched the Sidewinder from his jet, the missile doubled back in the direction of his plane and Schirra had to use great skill to evade it.5 From 1954 to 1956, he was a project pilot for the F7U-3 Cutlass jet fighter and instructor pilot on the Cutlass and the FJ-3 Fury. In 1956 and 1957, he flew F3H-2N Demons as Operations Officer of Fighter Squadron 124 onboard the aircraft carrier Lexington in the Pacific.6 In 1957 he attended the Naval Air Safety Officer School at the University of Southern California, and in 1958 and 1959 he completed test pilot's training at the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland, and was assigned to suitability development work on the F-4h jet fighter there.7

Schirra was working at Patuxent River when he first heard about the Mercury Project. He stated that at first he was not keenly interested in being an astronaut, but the more he heard about the idea, the more interested he got.8 As the doctors at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were testing him for a position as an astronaut in the Mercury Project they discovered a polyp on his larynx. The doctors at the Clinic offered to remove it for him then, however the treatment included absolute silence for four days. This was impossible at the time because he was due in Dayton, Ohio, to take some psychological tests which would require Schirra to speak. He was also still in the Navy, which meant that he had to consult with his commanding officers before anything like that could be done. Later on the medics put him on a week's silent treatment. He broke it only once when a NASA official called from Langley to ask how his polyp was coming along. At the end of the week the doctors decided to go ahead and operate immediately. They arranged to give him what was normally a two or three month treatment in two to three days in order to get it over with. This was Schirra's first clue that he was on the way to becoming one of NASA's first seven astronauts.9

Schirra was named as one of the "Original Seven" Mercury Astronauts on April 9, 1959. NASA announced that the seven men, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, John H. Glenn, Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, Schirra, L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, had been selected from among 110 of the nation's top military test pilots to train as astronauts for Project Mercury, the first phase of the U.S. space program, involving one-man suborbital and orbital missions. Schirra, Shepard and Carpenter were from the Navy; Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton were from the Air Force; and Glenn was from the Marine Corps.10

Schirra's special responsibility in Project Mercury was the development of environmental controls or life-support systems that would ensure the safety and comfort of the astronaut within the spacecraft during the mission. His tasks also included the testing and improvement of the pressurized suit worn by the astronauts.11

On May 24, 1962, he served as backup pilot for MA-7, the three orbit mission flown by Carpenter. On June 27, 1962, Schirra was designated for America's fifth manned space mission and third orbital flight, originally scheduled for September 28, 1962. A malfunctioning fuel-control valve delayed the flight of MA-8 until October 3, 1962. Schirra piloted the capsule Sigma 7 on a six-orbit mission lasting 9 hours, 13 minutes, and 11 seconds. The capsule attained a velocity of 17,557 miles per hour and an altitude of 175 statute miles, the capsule traveled almost 144,000 statute miles before reentry into Earth's atmosphere.12 He proved that an astronaut could carefully manage the limited amounts of electricity and maneuvering fuel necessary for longer, more complex flights. He chose the name Sigma because it symbolized engineering precision, and the result was precisely engineered flight that many have termed a "textbook spaceflight." The capsule splashed down only 4.5 miles from the aircraft carrier Kearsarge in the Pacific Ocean13 about 275 miles northeast of Midway Island.14 He was later awarded with the NAS Distinguished Service Medal for his work in the Mercury Project.15

After Project Mercury, Schirra worked with the other astronauts and with NASA officials, scientists and engineers in the development of Project Gemini, the intermediate stage between the Mercury program and the Apollo Moon project. He served as the backup command pilot for Gemini GT-3 (Gemini-Titan), the first American two-man space mission flown by Grissom and John W. Young, an astronaut chosen with the second astronaut class dubbed the "New Nine." On June 22, 1965, Schirra was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson for promotion from commander to captain.16

Schirra's second spaceflight began on December 15, 1965, when he was launched as the command pilot aboard Gemini GT-6A. The mission was intended to perform the first rendezvous and docking between different spacecraft, a vital prerequisite for missions to the moon, but the unmanned Agena target for Gemini 6 failed to reach orbit on October 25, 1965. Gemini 6 was removed from the pad and replaced by Gemini 7, which was launched on December 4, 1965, on a planned 14-day flight. Gemini 6 was redesignated Gemini 6-A.17

Eight days later, Schirra and pilot Thomas P. Stafford were in their spacecraft atop the Titan II booster when it ignited, then shut down after only two seconds. Rather than eject himself and Stafford, Schirra chose to remain in the spacecraft while technicians confirmed that the booster was not going to explode.18 On December 15, 1965, Schirra and Stafford finally launched and less than six hours later they were completing a non-docking orbital rendezvous with astronauts Frank Borman and James A. Lovell, Jr., both from the "New Nine," aboard Gemini 7, 170 miles above the Mariana Islands. Gemini GT-6A splashed down on December 1 in the Atlantic Ocean, just eight miles from the USS Wasp19 after 16 orbits over 25 hours 51 minutes and 24 seconds.20

On September 29, 1966, Schirra was assigned to the prime crew for the second manned Apollo flight. He served as the backup commander for Apollo 1 (204), scheduled for launch on February 21, 197. During a routine "plugs out test" on January 27, 1967, the crew, Grissom; Ed White, first American to perform an EVA (extravehicular activity); and rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee; was killed in a fire in the spacecraft while on the pad. On May 9, 1967, Schirra was reassigned to the prime crew for the first manned Apollo flight. That assignment was confirmed later that year on November 20.21

Schirra's third and final mission began on October 11, 1968, when he was launched as commander of Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, making him the only Mercury astronaut to fly aboard Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecrafts. During the flight, astronauts Schirra, Donn Eisele, Command/Service Module (CSM) Pilot, and Walter Cunningham, Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) Pilot, tested the spacecraft's systems, in particular the systems that had been redesigned after the Apollo 1 fire. They performed rendezvous exercises with the upper stage of the Saturn 1-B launch vehicle and provided the first television pictures from a U.S. spacecraft. All three astronauts developed head colds during their almost 11 days in space.22 Approximately 15 hours into the flight Schirra developed a bad cold, and Cunningham and Eisele soon followed suit. In the weightlessness of space, mucus accumulates , filing the nasal passages and does not drain from the head. The only relief is to blow hard, which is painful to the eardrums. Several days before the mission ended, they began to worry about wearing their suit helmets during reentry, which would prevent them from blowing their noses. The buildup of pressure might burst their eardrums. Mission Control tried to persuade them to wear the helmets, anyway, but Schirra was adamant. They each took a decongestant, Actifed, an hour before reentry and made it through the acceleration zone without any problems with their ears.23 After 163 orbits over 10 days and 20 hours, they landed on October 22, 1968, in the Atlantic Ocean and were recovered by the USS Essex.24

Schirra retired from the Navy as a captain and resigned from NASA on July 1, 1969, to become president of Regency Investors Incorporated, a major financial complex and worldwide leasing company based in Denver, Colorado. From 1970 to 1973, he was chairman and chief executive officer of Environmental Control Company (ECCO), based in Englewood, Colorado. From 1973 to 1974, he was chairman of the board of SERNCO Incorporated, and for the next three years he was a director at Johns-Manville Corporation in Denver, Colorado. From 1978 to 1979, he was vice president for development at Goodwin Companies Incorporated in Littleton, Colorado.25

In January 1979 he formed his own firm, Schirra Enterprises, and he worked as an independent consultant in 1979 and 1980. In 1980, he was elected to the board of directors of Electromedics Incorporated. He has also served as president of Prometheus, an energy development company in Colorado, and on the board of directors of Kimberly Clark, Finalco and Net Air International.26 In 1984, he and the other surviving Mercury astronauts and Gus Grissom's widow, Betty Grissom, founded the Mercury Seven Foundation to raise money for scholarships for science and engineering students in college. In 1995, the organization was renamed the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.27 Schirra is currently a private consultant in Rancho Santa Fe, California, a public speaker and a television commercial spokesman for Actifed, the cold remedy he took on Apollo 7.28

Schirra received numerous honors and awards while in the service of the United States Navy and NASA including; honorary Doctorate of Astronautical Engineering from Lafayette College; honorary Doctorate of Astronautics from the Newark College of Engineering; and an honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Southern California. He is a fellow in the American Astronautical Society and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots; a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and American Fighter Pilots Association; a 33rd Degree Mason; director of the Rocky Mountain Airways; on the Department of the Interior Advisory Board on National Parks, Historical Sites and Monuments; a member of the Honorary Belgian Consul of Colorado; and director of Electromedics, Colorado, and Watt County, Nashville, Tennessee.29

He has received three Distinguished Flying Crosses; two Air Medals; two NASA Distinguished Service Medals, two NASA Exceptional Service Medals; the Navy Distinguished Service Medal; Navy Astronaut Wings; the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) Robert J. Collier Trophy in 1963; Newark College of Engineering Alumnus Award; Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) Iven C. Kincheloe Award; American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Award in 1963; American Astronautical Society (AAS) Flight Achievement Award in 1966; Kitty Hawk Award; Great American Award; Golden Key Award; American Rocket Society (ARS) Astronautics Award in 1963; and Harmon International Aviation Trophy for 1966. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, on July 26, 1986.30

Schirra has brown hair and brown eyes, stands 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 185 pounds. He and his wife, Jo, have two children: Walter Marty III, born on June 23, 1950, and Suzanne Karen, born on September 29, 1957.31


Carpenter | Cooper | Glenn | Grissom | Schirra | Shepard | Slayton

1. Hawthorne, Douglas B. Men and Women of Space (San Diego: Univelt Incorporated, 1992), p. 623.
2. "Walter Marty Schirra, Jr." National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Washington, DC: May 1961). Hereafter referred to as NASA Biography.
3. Hawthorne, pp. 623–624.
4. NASA Biography.
5.Hawthorne, p. 624.
6. NASA Biography.
7.Hawthorne, p. 624.
8. Carpenter, M. Scott, et al., We Seven (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), pp. 76, 78, 80.
9. Ibid., pp. 80–82.
10.Hawthorne, p. 624.
12. "Walter M. Schirra, Jr." Manned Spacecraft Center Biographical Data (Houston, Texas: June 1967), p. 2. Herafter referred to as MSC Biography.
13.Hawthorne, p. 624.
14. MSC Biography, p. 2.
15. Ibid., p. 1.
16. Hawthorne, pp. 624–625.
17. Ibid., p. 625.
18. "Something Was Amiss, But They Felt No Peril." Washington Post, December 13, 1965, pp. A1, A7.
19.Hawthorne, p. 625.
20. Dumoulin, Jim. "Gemini-VI-A (7)." NASA Project Gemini VI-A, 1998. (August 4, 1998), p. 2.
21.Hawthorne, p. 625.
23. Dumoulin, Jim. "Apollo-7 (23)." NASA Apollo Mission Apollo-7, 1998. (August 4, 1998), p. 4.
24.Hawthorne, p. 625.
27. "Adm. Alan Shepard, Jr. Biography." The Hall of Science and Exploration. (July 27, 1998), p. 4.
28.Hawthorne, p. 625.
29. Ibid., p. 623.
30. Ibid.

Carpenter | Cooper | Glenn | Grissom | Schirra | Shepard | Slayton