On the day that he and six others were publicly announced as America’s astronauts for Project Mercury, Walter Marty Schirra Jr could not resist a joke. It was 9 April 1959 and the conference room of the Dolley Madison House, opposite Lafayette Park in downtown Washington, DC, was packed with journalists. On the stage, all resplendent in suits and ties, Schirra was joined by Scott Carpenter, Gordo Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Al Shepard and Deke Slayton, together with Walt Bonney, the NASA presiding officer. As experienced test pilots, all of the Mercury Seven were ill at ease with the formality and pretence of press conferences…until Schirra leaned across to tell Slayton a joke. He called them ‘gotchas’…and he was not alone in his enjoyment or execution of them.
On 3 October, NASA will celebrate the passage of five decades since Schirra became America’s fifth astronaut and third to orbit the Earth, aboard the Mercury-Atlas-8 (MA-8) spacecraft. To the engineers, the mission would be known as just that – MA-8 – but Schirra’s own engineering brain led him to give it another name: ‘Sigma 7’. He spent nine hours in space and circled the globe six times. It was not a world record, for the Soviet Union had already sent cosmonauts aloft for as much as four days, but Schirra’s mission nevertheless demonstrated that Project Mercury could accomplish its challenging mandate of keeping a man alive for a prolonged period of time and support valuable scientific and technical objectives. It also cleared a significant hurdle on the road to meeting President John Kennedy’s goal of American boots on the Moon before the end of the decade.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sigma 7, AmericaSpace will run a series of History articles about the mission, this weekend and next…but a trip down memory lane for this particular mission would be incomplete if we were not first to visit the remarkably complex, energetic and colourful character of ‘Wally’ himself.
Schirra came from Hackensack, New Jersey, where he was born on 12 March 1923. One writer described him as having aviation in his blood and this is not too far from the truth, for his parents had both engaged in the risky pursuits of ‘barnstorming’ and ‘wingwalking’ during the Twenties. His father, Walter, was a veteran fighter pilot and engineer from the First World War and frequently handled the controls of a Curtiss Jenny biplane, whilst his mother, Florence, danced on the lowermost wing, supporting herself on the interconnecting struts. Awestruck crowds in Oradell, New Jersey, coughed up five dollars a time to watch the Schirra’s daredevil antics.
Fortunately, wrote Wally Schirra in his autobiography, Schirra’s Space, his mother “gave up wingwalking when I was in the hangar!” Still, it allowed the astronaut-in-waiting to rightfully make one boast with conviction: that unlike Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield and the other celebrated pilots of his era, Schirra was actually flying before he was born…
He graduated from Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1940 and attended the Newark College of Engineering, before being appointed to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. His disappointed father had wanted him to attend West Point as an Army officer, but in his autobiography Schirra recalled once seeing a naval aviator, clad in “green uniform, the sharp gold wings above his left pocket and his polished brown shoes shiny. From that day on, I always wanted to go to Navy”. He underwent an abbreviated class, “a five-year programme…crammed into three”, received his degree in 1945 and served two years at sea in the Pacific. Not only was his education abbreviated, but so too was his whirlwind romance with Jo Fraser, whom he met, courted for seven days and finally married whilst on leave in February 1946.
A tour of duty in China, attached to the staff of the commander of the Seventh Fleet as a briefing officer, meant that Schirra was a witness to the Communist Revolution sweeping the most populous nation on Earth. “A high crime rate in the neighbourhood in which Jo and I lived,” he wrote, “practically a robbery a night, was an expression of revolutionary contempt for the American ‘imperialists’…I knew when we left that China would never be the same again.” Shortly thereafter, and proving that aviation was truly in his blood, Schirra became the first member of his academy to be detailed for flight training, transferring to Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida and receiving his wings in June 1948. He soloed in a Yellow Peril biplane, then flew fighters for three years. Upon the outbreak of war in Korea, Schirra volunteered for active service as an exchange aviator with an Arkansas-based Air National Guard unit. He spent eight months in south-east Asia, flew 90 combat missions in the F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bomber and shot down two MiG-15s – “a tough little adversary” – for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Following Korea, Schirra served at the Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, California, during which time he participated in the initial development of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and later served as chief test pilot for the F-7U Cutlass and F-J3 Furyjet fighters at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. Although he praised the usefulness of the Cutlass in better understanding the aerodynamics of a delta-winged aircraft, Schirra would reject it on the basis that if it stalled with its leading-edge slats ‘in’, its motions became wild and random, with ejection the pilot’s sole option. The Cutlass would later be declared operational, much to the chagrin of Schirra and the other members of his flight-test group, who had seen a number of fatalities. (Over a quarter of all Cutlasses built would be lost in accidents.) Years later, he would refer to it darkly as a “widow-maker”.
Schirra completed the Naval Air Safety School and a tour of the Far East aboard the Lexington, before being selected for and reporting to the Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland, in January 1958. It was at this time, he wrote, that he learned to communicate effectively with engineers, “the most valuable asset that I took from test pilot school to the space programme”. For each test, Schirra was required to report in depth on tactical manoeuvres, power settings and data points. Graduating in late 1958, he assumed duties as a fully-fledged test pilot, transferring to Edwards Air Force Base in California to help evaluate the F-4H Phantom-II long-range supersonic fighter-bomber.
Then, like more than a hundred other Navy, Air Force and Marine fliers across the United States, in the spring of 1959 Schirra received classified orders to attend a briefing in Washington, DC. Initially, he was reluctant to undergo the months of training for Project Mercury. “I wanted to be cycled back to the fleet with the F-4H, get credit or take blame for its performance and put it through its paces as a tactical fighter,” he wrote. “I saw myself as the first commander of an F-4H squadron. The space programme to me was a career interruption.” Still, he underwent the gruelling tests and began to realise that as other pilots fell by the wayside, he was on the cusp of joining the most elite flying fraternity of all.
Undoubtedly, Schirra’s experience had placed him in mortal danger on many occasions, yet his lifetime motto remained: “Levity is the lubricant of a crisis”. His joke to Slayton in the Dolley Madison conference room would not be his last…or worst. On one occasion, Schirra and Al Shepard conspired against an unfortunate Life photographer, named Ralph Morse. The intrepid cameraman had already scored his own ‘gotcha’ against the astronauts by tracking them down on a desert survival training exercise, near Reno, Nevada, and revenge was called for. Schirra and Shepard planted a smoke flare in the exhaust of Morse’s jeep and told him to shift the vehicle. The unsuspecting Morse hit the pedal and – boom! – was instantly engulfed in a cloud of green smoke! “The jeep had to be towed back to Reno,” Schirra wrote, “and sold for scrap.”
On other occasions, the Mercury astronauts would coat the bottoms of each other’s metal ashtrays with thin films of gasoline. Whenever one of them flicked hot ash, a flash fire would result. “Fiendish, but fun,” Schirra wrote. Flight surgeon Stan White, who had purchased a new sports car, often bragged to the astronauts about its high efficiency. “So we planned his comeuppance,” explained Schirra. “For a week, we added gasoline to his tank – a pint a day – and he raved about the great mileage he was getting. The following week, we siphoned off a pint a day…and he went berserk! White never did figure it out.”
During his ten years with NASA, Schirra’s humour formed an essential crutch in supporting astronaut morale, as triumph and tragedy gorged the programme with equal measure. In September 1962, shortly before he rocketed into orbit aboard Sigma 7, the astronauts’ nurse, Dolores O’Hara – nicknamed ‘Dee’ – became the latest victim of one of Schirra’s gotchas.
Tomorrow’s article will focus on the planning and launch of Sigma 7.