Wally, Walt, and Whatshisname: The Three Heroes Who Set Apollo’s Course for the Moon

Commander Wally Schirra (center) and crewmates Donn Eisele (left) and Walt Cunningham restored America's confidence in the Apollo spacecraft and enabled NASA to put its bold plan for a voyage to lunar orbit in motion. Photo Credit: NASA
Commander Wally Schirra (center) and crewmates Donn Eisele (left) and Walt Cunningham restored America’s confidence in the Apollo spacecraft and enabled NASA to put its bold plan for a voyage to lunar orbit in motion. Photo Credit: NASA

Forty-five years ago today, on 22 October 1968, the future began. With the successful return of Apollo 7 astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham, following an 11-day mission in Earth orbit, the spacecraft which would one day transport humans to the Moon completed its inaugural shakedown voyage. The flight of Schirra’s crew finally laid the ghosts of the Apollo 1 fire to rest and enabled NASA to boldly press ahead with its plan to direct Apollo 8 to perform the first piloted expedition to lunar orbit. Nine weeks after the Apollo 7 command module hit the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Apollo 8 astronauts celebrated Christmas Eve in orbit around the Moon … and, a little more than six months after that, the program was positioned for Neil Armstrong to make his historic “one small step” onto the dusty plain of the Sea of Tranquility.

Project Apollo was one of the most audacious exercises in engineering, science, technology, bravery, heroism, ingenuity, and brilliance ever undertaken in human history, and its success was possible only through the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people. In October 1968, those hundreds of thousands were represented in the airless vacuum of space by just three men. Astronauts Schirra, Eisele, and Cunningham performed admirably—though not without hiccups—and although none of them ever flew into space again, their legacy is that they played an enormous role in realizing Apollo’s goal of American boots on the surface of the Moon. To commemorate today’s 45th anniversary of their return from space, AmericaSpace pays tribute to these three remarkable men.

In command of Apollo 7, Walter Marty Schirra, Jr. was one of the “Original Seven” Mercury astronauts selected by NASA in April 1959. On the day that he and six others—Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Al Shepard, and Deke Slayton—assembled before journalists in the conference room of the Dolley Madison House in downtown Washington, D.C., Schirra could not resist a joke. He was in good company, for all of the Mercury Seven were ill at ease with the formality and pretence. Their humor revolved around the use of increasingly more diabolical “gotchas” and each of the Mercury Seven reveled in their enjoyment of these practical jokes.

Schirra (right) consults the flight plan for his Mercury-Atlas-8 (MA-8) mission with Flight Director Chris Kraft. Photo Credit: NASA
Wally Schirra (right) consults the flight plan for his Mercury-Atlas-8 (MA-8) mission with Flight Director Chris Kraft. Photo Credit: NASA

Schirra came from Hackensack, N.J., 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 1920s. His father, Walter, was a veteran fighter pilot and engineer from World War I 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, N.J., coughed up $5 a time to watch the Schirras’ daredevil antics. Fortunately, wrote Wally Schirra in his autobiography, Schirra’s Space, his mother “gave up wingwalking when I was in the hangar!”

He graduated from Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, N.J., in 1940 and attended the Newark College of Engineering, before being appointed to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. 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 program … 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 southeast 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.

Pictured aboard Sigma 7 during his nine-hour mission, Wally Schirra went on to command the first fully-fledged orbital rendezvous mission on Gemini VI and led the first Apollo mission into Earth orbit. In doing so, this colourful character became the only man to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. Photo Credit: NASA
Pictured aboard Sigma 7 during his nine-hour mission, Wally Schirra went on to command the first fully fledged orbital rendezvous mission on Gemini VI and led the first Apollo mission into Earth orbit. In doing so, this colourful character became the only man to fly Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Photo Credit: NASA

Following Korea, Schirra served at the Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, Calif., 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, Md., 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 maneuvers, power settings, and data points. Graduating in late 1958, he assumed duties as a fully-fledged test pilot, transferring to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., 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 January 1959 Schirra received classified orders to attend a briefing in Washington, D.C. 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 program 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 ability to dream up and execute practical jokes became the stuff of legend. 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, Nev., 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.”

AS-6.23.2013-AS7-0153A-S68-42316-8.5.68 Retro Space Images post of NASA photo of Donn Eisele
Donn Eisele flew his one and only space mission on Apollo 7. Photo Credit: NASA / Retro Space Images

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 10 years with NASA, Schirra’s humour formed an essential crutch in supporting astronaut morale, as triumph and tragedy gorged the program with equal measure. In October 1962, he became America’s third man to orbit Earth, when he flew the nine-hour Mercury-Atlas-8 mission, aboard a capsule which he named “Sigma 7.” Three years later, Schirra commanded Gemini VI-A, which completed the first rendezvous in orbit between two piloted vehicles. And three years after that, in October 1968, Apollo 7 made Schirra the first human to complete three orbital space missions.

In contrast to Schirra’s experience, his two crewmates were both making their first—and only flights—on Apollo 7. In truth, Donn Fulton Eisele’s NASA career was waning by the time Apollo 7 splashed down. Born in Columbus, Ohio, on 23 June 1930, Eisele followed the classic path to become an astronaut: a degree from the Naval Academy in 1952, a master’s credential in astronautics from the Air Force Institute of Technology, and graduation from the Aerospace Research Pilots’ School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Prior to his selection as an astronaut, along with Walt Cunningham, in October 1963, Eisele served as a project engineer and test pilot at the Air Force’s Special Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

The easygoing Eisele’s performance as an astronaut is hinted at by Deke Slayton in his autobiography, Deke, when he notes that his original intention was to “try out some of the guys who, frankly, I thought were weaker” on the Apollo 1 mission. “My original rotation had Donn Eisele and Roger Chaffee as the senior pilot and pilot, working for Gus [Grissom],” he continued. Had it not been for the fact that Eisele damaged his shoulder during a zero-G training flight aboard a KC-135 aircraft just before Christmas 1965, he might have been in the senior pilot’s seat aboard Apollo 1, instead of Ed White. Instead, Slayton considered it easier to swap Eisele for White, the latter of whom was previously attached to Wally Schirra’s original Apollo 2 crew.

Eisele quickly assumed the moniker Whatshisname, bestowed upon him by Schirra and Cunningham, when nobody seemed to be able to pronounce his surname. Phonetically, it ran EYE-SEL-EE, but when NASA Administrator Jim Webb tried to introduce the crew to President Lyndon Johnson, he mistakenly called him Donn “Isell.” “From then on,” Schirra wrote, “Donn was Whatshisname.

A tired Walt Cunningham glances through one of the command module's windows during the 11-day Apollo 7 mission. Photo Credit: NASA
A tired Walt Cunningham glances through one of the command module’s windows during the 11-day Apollo 7 mission. Photo Credit: NASA

Eisele’s career, in addition to Apollo 7, was harmed by a particularly ugly divorce from his wife, Harriet, the result of an affair which caused his work in the astronaut office to suffer. Indeed, the pressures of the job had led many astronauts to look elsewhere, outside the marital home, and after Eisele it would be John Young who would next go through a divorce. Unlike Eisele, however, it would appear that Young did not allow his personal life to disrupt his work and remained devoted to the space program. Stories would abound over the years that the funeral of one astronaut killed in the 1960s—his name was never divulged—was attended not only by his wife and family … but also by his long-term mistress, discreetly escorted to the ceremony by a close and trusted friend.

In spite of the criticisms leveled at them in the wake of Apollo 7, both Eisele and Cunningham were at least considered for backup roles on future missions. The former had already been assigned to serve as the backup command module pilot on Apollo 10, the dress-rehearsal for the first lunar landing. For Tom Stafford, the commander of that mission’s prime crew, however, Eisele’s assignment was little more than “a temporary step into oblivion.” Cunningham, on the other hand, would work for several years on the Skylab program, and even trained for a time as backup commander for its first mission. He “wanted to fly again,” wrote Deke Slayton. “In spite of the Flight Operations opinion that he shouldn’t, I wasn’t going to rule him out. But it was a numbers game.” Cunningham, like Eisele, never flew again.

Ronnie Walter Cunningham was born on 16 March 1932 in Creston, Iowa, and came to be seen as one of “the scientists” in the astronaut corps, owing to his credentials as a civilian physicist. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1960 and 1961, respectively, then began doctoral research, which he completed, save for his final thesis. However, his military experience certainly paralleled his scientific knowledge: he joined the Navy in 1951, began flight training, and served on active duty, then as a reservist, with the Marine Corps. “In the Navy, in those days, you ran the risk of being assigned to torpedo bombers or transport pilots,” Cunningham recalled, “and the Marine Corps guaranteed you that your first tour … would be flying single-engine fighter planes.” He remained a reservist throughout his astronaut career. Prior to selection in October 1963, Cunningham worked for the Rand Corporation, performing research in support of classified projects and problems relating to the magnetosphere.

“I was working on defence against submarine-launched ballistic missiles, trying to write in … the crudest fashion the equations that would intercept a missile on the rise,” Cunningham explained. “At the same time, I was doing my doctoral work on the Earth’s magnetosphere. It was a tri-axial search coil magnetometer and we were trying to measure fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. It was during this period that I applied and got accepted at NASA. I never did finish the thesis.”

As a non-test pilot, possessing an air of academia and a self-described irreverence to authority, Cunningham stood out. He “seemed determined to be different from the rest of us,” wrote his classmate Gene Cernan in his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, “whether reading The Wall Street Journal while we busted our asses during a classroom lecture or driving a Porsche instead of a Corvette.” He would also lose support through his criticisms, notably over the performance of Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott during the Gemini VIII emergency. When Cunningham claimed years later that he, Schirra, and Eisele had been tarred and feathered for their antics on Apollo 7, Cernan retorted that it was “probably with good reason.”

Notwithstanding the controversy which their mission, and their personalities, courted, the men of Apollo 7 completed a virtually flawless shakedown of the spacecraft which would one day enable our species’ first exploration of another world. With Eisele having died in December 1987 and Schirra having passed away in May 2007, only Cunningham—now 81 years old—remains alive from their ranks. These three remarkable astronauts have formed an integral part of the “Right Stuff” about which Tom Wolfe once wrote and which characterized their generation of spacefarers and those who followed them.


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