50 Years Since Sigma 7: A Tale of Turtles

Signed image of Dee O’Hara with Wally Schirra’s enormous urine specimen bottle. Photo Credit: NASA/Wallyschirra.com

Urine samples were part and parcel of an astronaut’s medical regimen in the days and weeks surrounding a mission. For the Mercury Seven, their nurse, Dolores ‘Dee’ O’Hara, was all-powerful. The astronauts feared that the doctors, whilst highly educated, lacked practical skills and they trusted O’Hara to take their urine and blood samples on a daily basis. One morning in September 1962, the nurse arrived at her office to be greeted by the latest samples from Wally Schirra and Gordo Cooper, prime and backup crew members for the United States’ fifth manned space mission, Mercury-Atlas-8 (MA-8).

Unfortunately, whenever Schirra was involved, a practical joke was never far away. He and the other members of the Mercury Seven called them ‘gotchas’. On this occasion, the astronauts left O’Hara an unusual ‘urine’ sample: a huge bottle, filled with warm water, coloured with iodine, foamed-up with laundry soap, and dumped onto the nurse’s desk. For good measure, Schirra and Cooper tagged the bottle’s delivery time in GMT, added a handful of coloured lollipops and disappeared to await the fireworks. O’Hara arrived presently, took one horrified look at the enormous specimen bottle and burst into tears of laughter. Schirra later dedicated a photograph of O’Hara, clutching the bottle, and inscribed it with the simple legend: Gotcha.

Schirra’s nine-hour, six-orbit mission into space on 3 October 1962 would be filled with drama and excitement…and a few gotchas of its own.

Wally Schirra is inserted into the Sigma 7 capsule on launch morning. Backup pilot Gordo Cooper provides assistance. Photo Credit: NASA

Fifty years ago, this week, Schirra and Cooper were hard at work preparing the final details for the MA-8 mission, nicknamed ‘Sigma 7’. Their names had been announced by NASA on 27 July and the flight would be exclusively dedicated to engineering objectives, with Schirra expected to focus on the management and operation of the craft’s systems, including its hydrogen peroxide fuel for attitude-control and electrical power. In fact, the only ‘scientific’ experiment would be an attempt to observe a ground-based xenon floodlight at Durban in South Africa, which would glimmer at 140 million candlepower, and a one-million-candlepower quartet of flares at Woomera in Australia. A few terrestrial and weather photography tasks were timelined and ablation panels were fused onto Sigma 7’s hull to evaluate passive thermal effects on a variety of materials.

Planning for such a lengthy mission began in February 1962, when it was recognised that oxygen supplies, reaction-control system reserves and power had to be taken into account. A three-orbit Mercury mission, with all systems operating, consumed about 7,080 watt-hours of battery power from an available 13,500 watt-hours, but a six-orbit mission would leave a reserve supply of only 6.7 percent. Engineers insisted that at least a ten-per cent post-landing reserve should be available as a safety factor and made recommendations as to how to achieve this. There were two choices. Either some unneeded systems could be turned off during a substantial portion of the flight or the spacecraft’s telemetry-transmission and radar-beacon operations could be transferred to ground command. This could raise reserve power levels to 15 percent and provide a healthy safety margin. Oxygen was another problem. Unwilling to relax safety rules, a vigorous effort was implemented to reduce cabin-leakage rates to two-thirds of their previous value, and a higher capacity of lithium hydroxide would be carried to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Even as these efforts were ongoing, NASA and McDonnell engineers had their sights set on a much longer Mercury mission, up to a day in duration and completing 18 orbits. However, this depended on the ability of Sigma 7 and Schirra to validate the changes and verify that an astronaut could indeed tolerate weightlessness over such a long period. The Mercury Project Office also suggested alternating a combination of automatic and manual modes to provide safer fuel reserves at the end of a flight. In the case of a malfunction in one of the modes, Schirra would be assured of an adequate supply in the other. Recovery procedures also needed adjustment, for Sigma 7’s flight path during its fourth, fifth, sixth and (conceivably) seventh orbits predicted a splashdown point in the northern Pacific Ocean, some 275 miles north-east of Midway Island.

Carrying the undisputed jokester of the Mercury Seven, the Atlas booster thunders into orbit with Sigma 7 and its ‘Turtle’ pilot. Photo Credit: NASA

Mission rules dictated that a contingency recovery capability must be in place within 18 hours after splashdown; a capability easily met for flights lasting up to six orbits, but requiring additional recovery forces for seven orbits. As a result of this, Sigma 7 was restricted to six orbits. Two Mercury capsules – Spacecraft No. 16 and No. 19 – were delivered to Cape Canaveral in January and March 1962, and No. 16 was selected for the mission. By April, work needed to prepare the capsule was well underway: temperature surveys of its critical points were complete, its environmental system passed altitude-chamber tests and its reaction-control system was put successfully through its paces. However, niggling glitches with emergency oxygen rate valves, water coolant and a higher-than-allowable oxygen leakage rate conspired to delay Sigma 7 past August to at least 18 September and, ultimately, into the first week of October.

Schirra’s Atlas rocket had also experienced its own fair share of problems. Originally scheduled to be delivered to Cape Canaveral in July, it failed its initial composite test at Convair’s San Diego facility and arrived the following month. Next, the Air Force revealed that its military Atlas programme had suffered four recent turbopump failures and advised NASA that the rocket assigned to Sigma 7 would be put through a flight-readiness static test-firing. This postponed the launch by another week, but, even before the test was made, a fuel leak was found in a seam weld, effectively pushing the mission back from 24 September to 3 October. Still, Schirra’s Atlas promised to be the safest so far: its engines would utilise hypergolic fluids instead of pyrotechnics and this eliminated a two-second ‘hold-down’ at ignition, which saved fuel and provided for smoother initial combustion. Additionally, baffled injectors prevented combustion instability.

Five relay stations aboard five Air Force C-130s, based in Florida, Puerto Rico and on Midway Island, would augment the tracking network by covering areas previously out of communications range. Nineteen ships stood by in the Atlantic and nine in the Pacific, while no less than 134 aircraft covered the primary and secondary splashdown areas. In total, around 17,000 personnel would support the Sigma 7 recovery effort.

Early on 3 October, Wally Schirra was awakened in the quarters of the Cape’s Hangar S by Air Force flight surgeon Howie Minners. He showered, dressed and ate the traditional breakfast of steak and eggs with Bob Gilruth, Walt Williams and the newly-appointed Co-ordinator of Astronaut Activities, Deke Slayton. Another item also took pride of place on the breakfast menu. The previous evening, Schirra and Slayton had gone fishing. Cape Canaveral had earned renown for its excellent surf fishing, especially in the spring and autumn, and the two astronauts hooked several bluefish. They were “in the five-pound range,” wrote Schirra in his autobiography, Schirra’s Space, “but they fought free by severing our leaders with their razor-sharp teeth. I managed to land one by slinging it on the beach and pouncing on it before it could wriggle back to the surf”. The bluefish, it seemed, was not the only individual with a shock in store. The two astronauts were aware of a Thor-Delta rocket – carrying NASA’s Explorer 14 satellite – situated on nearby Pad 17, but they did not know how close it was to launch!

“It wasn’t until we heard a roar that we realised the Thor-Delta was lifting-off,” wrote Schirra. “We were looking right up the tailpipe of its monster engine and we knew right away that we were in the danger zone. Had there been an abort, it would have been a bad day for Mercury, with the chief astronaut and the pilot of MA-8 incinerated like the legendary rattlesnakes.” Fortunately, he added, the bluefish for breakfast the next morning was delicious. Another pleasant surprise at the breakfast table, hot off the press, was a copy of the New York Times. It had been flown from New York to Florida that very morning and Schirra was so impressed that he kept it.

Wally Schirra’s jocular exterior masked a brilliant engineer and an outstanding test pilot. He became the only astronaut to have flown aboard all three of the United States’ early manned spacecraft: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Photo Credit: NASA

The drive to the launch pad was uneventful, with the exception that the astronaut fell asleep, to be awakened (again) by Howie Minners. By 4:40 am EST, Schirra, assisted by Gordo Cooper and Pad 14 leader Guenter Wendt, was aboard Sigma 7. The countdown proceeded with exceptional smoothness, the only minor problem being a radar malfunction at the Canary Islands tracking station, and the United States’ third orbital mission set off at 7:15:11 am. In his post-flight debriefing aboard the destroyer USS Kearsarge, Schirra described the ascent as “disappointingly short”, with all of his training to handle emergencies rewarded by a perfectly nominal climb into orbit. “I still believe that the amount of practice we had prior to [orbital] insertion is important,” he debriefed, “in that you must be prepared for reaction to an emergency, rather than thinking one cut.”

Sigma 7’s rise was not, however, entirely nominal.

Ten seconds after liftoff, it became clear that the clockwise roll rate of the Atlas was greater than planned, giving flight controllers cause for concern. “My course was being plotted against an overlay grid called a ‘harp’,” Schirra wrote in his autobiography. “Green lines in the middle of the grid designate the ‘safe’ zone and on the outer limits the lines go from yellow to red. I was headed into the yellow area. If I had reached the red, there was a likelihood that the Atlas would impact on land, possibly in a populated area.” Such a dire eventuality would have forced the Cape’s range safety officer to abort the mission, ejecting Sigma 7 and destroying the rocket. The primary and secondary sensors within the Atlas had registered a ‘rifling’ roll only 20 percent short of an abort condition…

Sigma 7 roars into orbit on 3 October 1962. Photo Credit: NASA

Thirty seconds into the climb, Schirra reported that the Atlas was “getting noisy”, after which he briefly lost contact with the control centre. “You had your transmitter keyed,” Capcom Deke Slayton told him two minutes after launch, when communications were restored. “That’s why we couldn’t read.” The remainder of the ascent ran normally and, at 7:18 am, Slayton radioed a cryptic, but loaded, question: Are you a turtle today?

The roots of the strange question were explained by Schirra on his personal website. He told the tale of a good and noble man, sickened by the vulgar minds of those around him and driven to despair over whether he will meet someone of his own intellect. At length, he retreated, turtle-like, into a protective shell and found his only respite in the consumption of alcohol (“for purely medicinal purposes, of course”). Over time, he sought out other like-minded individuals to join his drinking fraternity, dubbed the ‘Ancient and Honourable Order of Turtles’. However, he needed money and gambled his most prized possession – a donkey, which he had raised from birth – on a horse running at long odds at the local track. Fortunately, he won the bet and kept the donkey. To commemorate his triumph, all future members of the fraternity, when asked “Are you a turtle?” were expected to reply, without hesitating, “You bet your sweet ass I am!” Failure to do so would consign the victim to buy drinks for everyone close enough to have overheard the question.

Unfortunately for Schirra, the question had been asked over a ‘hot-mike’ and, if he did not answer correctly, the number of people ‘within earshot’ demanding alcoholic beverages could run into hundreds! On the other hand, even though ‘ass’ in this context referred innocently to the donkey, responding correctly to Slayton’s question over the open mike could have led to misunderstanding, embarrassment and a reprimand from NASA. Schirra was in a quandary. Then, he told Slayton “Going to VOX record only” and announced the correct response into Sigma 7’s voice recorder. Schirra would not need to buy drinks, but Slayton had scored his own launch-day ‘gotcha’ and put his friend briefly in the hot seat.

Even President John Kennedy (himself a Turtle) was asked at a press conference about his membership of the order, to which he responded that he would buy the questioner a drink later. Aside from the time-honoured tale of its formation, it can supposedly trace its origins back to the Second World War, when pilots used it as a means of amusement whilst relaxing between combat missions. To attain membership, candidates had to answer correctly at least four of 25 questions; each of which – although suggestive of an obscene answer – was actually quite innocent. Examples included: What does a woman do sitting down, that a dog does on three legs and a man does standing up? (Shake hands), What is a four-letter word, ending with ‘k’, that means ‘intercourse’? (Talk), What is long, hard and filled with seamen? (A submarine) and so on.

With Sigma 7 safely in orbit, and a handful of gotchas shared to boot, there could be little doubt that Wally Schirra’s mission would be colourful and enormously successful. As NASA prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a space voyage which is often overlooked, but which actually laid an important cornerstone in the United States’ vigorous effort to plant human boots on the Moon, AmericaSpace will shine a spotlight on the mission itself in next weekend’s History articles.


This is part of a series of History articles which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the mission of Sigma 7, a voyage which carried Wally Schirra further through space and longer than any other American astronaut at that time…and which brought him home to a touch of comeuppance from Dee O’Hara: the perfect post-flight Gotcha.

Missions » Apollo »


  1. I was Fifth Division Officer on the Kearsarge CVS-33 during the recoveries of Sigma 7 and Faith 7 and I have seized this opportunity to claim the record for the most aircraft and spacecraft recoveries of any destroyer in the world until you give Kearsarge recognition for actually being an aircraft carrier, not a destroyer. This probably would not register with most of today’s viewers, but in my day, every able bodied male served in the military, unless they had a deferment and many Navy personnel and Vets would have quickly noticed the slip. When Cdr Schirra came to the bridge to pay respects to the Captain upon his departing the ship (by flying off), I was there on watch. As the Skipper introduced the bridge team, Cdr Schirra came around and shook hands with each of us. When I went off watch, I went to my stateroom, got a stack of typing paper and traced my unwashed hand on each one. Mailed them out to my correspondents with an inscription to the effect of, “This is the print of the hand that shook the hand of Wally Schirra”. Hate it that I didn’t keep one for myself. I enjoy your recap. LtJG RC Boyd

    • Robert,

      My apologies for my mistake; I knew the Kearsarge was a destroyer, but inadvertently mis-labelled it. Thank you for your correction and for your fascinating recollections of meeting Cdr Schirra.


  2. Ben, you must have been nearly as sleep deprived as I, when you responded at 1:53 am. My main concern with establishing publicly that Kearsarge was an aircraft carrier, is that going uncorrected leaves the door open for so many airdales to brag that they launched and landed on a destroyer. Looking forward to this week’s article. Regards, Bob

  3. Along with LTjg Robert Boyd, I too was aboard the Kearsarge at the time and can certainly speak to the fact that she was an aircraft carrier (CVS 33). Just have to avoid giving the airdales any more unearned bragging rights.
    I did not have the privilege of shaking Wally Shirra’s hand, but the overall experience of participation in a history making event was sufficient reward.
    LTjg Richard Kraus, 2nd Division Officer

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