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One of America's best sons

Wally Schirra was simply one of America's best sons.
He was the astronaut who was always approachable.  The astronaut with a smile, a good joke, and the warmth that made you feel you were with family. On Oct. 3,1962, while the World Series was being played, an Atlas rocket boosted Wally Schirra and his Sigma Seven Mercury space capsule into earth orbit.  Wally proved his skills as a test pilot. He stayed up for six orbits -- nine hours. He had been launched with the same fuel quantity as John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, but he conserved fuel in a way that amazed Mercury Control. In the process he went through his scientific and engineering checklist with an efficiency that would have turned a robot green with envy.

It was what NASA watchers had been waiting for, a perfect flight. Sigma Seven splashed down less than four miles from the main recovery carrier near Midway Island in the Pacific. One broadcaster dubbed it "the flight of the Mongoose." That broadcaster was me.
In the past few months, Wally helped me in my efforts to write a book for the Smithsonian entitled "Live from Cape Canaveral" covering the 'space race' from Sputnik to today. In the book, to be released in early September, we leave no doubt Wally Schirra was not only a great naval aviator, he was a masterful practical joker as well.
One afternoon before his first flight, Wally walked out of his motel room with Inn Keeper Henri Landwirth.  Henri was supporting the wounded astronaut with a bloody towel wrapped around his arm. The pool was crowded with reporters and tourists, and we rushed to Schirra's aid. Concerned, I asked, "What happened, Wally?"
Wally turned, nodding toward a large field of palmetto and shaggy oaks.  "In there, Jay.  It was in there.  I don't know what," he groaned with pain, "but we got it -- we got the damn thing. It tore my arm up good."
"Did you call a doctor?"
"There's one on his way," the innkeeper nodded.
"Good," I answered, staring at the thick, bloodied towel.
"We need to wait for the doctor in the room," Henri the innkeeper said, and some of us followed a moaning Wally Schirra inside.
The bloodied astronaut pointed to a large box on his bed, covered with a blanket, and turned to me.  "Be careful, Jay. That thing's dangerous.  I think it's a mongoose."
"Big mongoose," Henri agreed.
I shook my head.  "There are no mongooses in Florida."
"Maybe it got loose or something. Who the hell cares?" Wally argued, growing more agitated. "Damnit, look for yourself."
Being from a farm, I have never been too afraid of animals.  I moved toward the box on the bed.
"Careful!" Wally insisted.
I was wondering why there was no movement in the box when -- WHAM! A Huge, spring-loaded hairy thing with long teeth and claws burst through the blanket into my face, knocking me backward onto the floor. Those who had followed me into the room shot outside, stopping a safe distance away. Wally was on the floor beside me, his arms around the "jack-in-the-box wild thing," doubled over with laughter.
In the coming years, the "mongoose" sent some of the country's most daring astronauts and fighter pilots hurtling through doors and windows to safety.
Last week Wally told me his treasured moongoose was still in his garage in California. Today, Wally had to leave us.  We'll miss our buddy.  But He'll be joining lots of friends that have gone on before.  Just do me one last favor Wally -- save me a place.  We'll all be along directly.

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COMMENTS

A great tribute JAY, Wally was truly an Amercian Idol and mine also. I was piloting a small mini submarine with Wally a couple years after his last space flight.When I stated it was quite an honor to have him on board he replied " hell look at what you're doing" after that the ice was broke and we had a lengthy Spacecraft vs. Submarine discussion. He was definatly a great mentor to me. You are remembered...

What is there to say? these men showed us how to be MEN. They showed us how to live and believe. They were a breed apart. I love the comment stating that a "great man' who really didn't know he was great!
They are all my heroes and will always be.
I weep for the loose but hope for the future they helped create.
Dave

What sweet memories have sprung to mind reading your article and the subsequent posts. I remember it like yesterday, sitting in heightened anticipation in front of our black and white television...the awe, the utter awe of it all.....men in space. Staying home from school, the nation, the world enraptured as these historical events unfolded before our eyes. The men, at that time, were a catalyst for our own desires and dreams...there is no place we cannot go. With a bittersweet taste in my mouth, I acknowlege we will not see their like again. Thank you one and all for sharing your thoughts and feelings here, and thank you Jay for your incredible gift. But most of all, thank you Wally; what you gave, and continue to give, to all of us, is immeasurable, and timeless. I, too, would like to add a comment about the woman astronaut, clearly she has mental problems, and demeaning her, demeans all people who suffer from this disease. The stigma is indeed great, and negative comments, no matter how well intentioned...prevent families and sufferers from coming forward and seeking help. Thank you for allowing me this forum.

He was simply, "the best of the best". We have losted a true American treasure. A man of honor, courage and "the spirit of america". Where do we find them to lead us now. As a 12 year old during that time, they were some of my heroes, and I'll look for them on my next journey.

Hi Jay,
I was at the Cape working on the pre-launch activites for Pioneer 9 when Apollo 7 was launched.
That Friday, October 11, we were in the ULO offices on the Cape Canaveral side when someone said lets take a break and watch the launch. We walked out and
looked down the hangar road to Pad 34. They had put some saw-horses across the road so you couldn't drive
toward the pad but when that Saturn IB lifted off the ground shook like an earthquate and those saw-horses bounced up and down like they were alive. It was too close for comfort but a great success.
We launched Pioneer 9 from Pad 17, the Delta, on November 11, 1968. Two great successes.
Well Wally, are you a turtle? YBYSAIA At the post
launch party for Pioneer 9 I was made a Turtle. I still have my card and pin. Thanks for the memories Wally and thanks for all your reports Jay.
Dave Lozier
NASA Ames Research Center
(retired Feb. 3, 2005)

Thank you Wally, thank you Alan, thank you Gus and all the astronauts of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. This was truly a magical time in my life as a very young man. These trailblazers took the first small step into our surrounding universe and opened up an era that we quite possibly will never experience again. I am honored to have witnessed it and saddened that some day all our heroes from that special moment in time will be gone. Farewell Wally, Farewell.

In the 60's as a young boy.. many campout nights were spent watching the stars trying to spot the capsules in flight..The Mercury astronuts were heroes that ignited dreams of children.. Nothing is impossible. Rest in Peace Wally.

Jay,
Thanks for a beautiful tribute. I have always admired your work. Wally, Godspeed--you will never be forgotten. What a pilot!!

I remember as a young kid watching most of the Mercury launches and dreaming of becoming an astronaut. Wally Scirra was one of my favorites and a true hero and role model! God speed, Walter Schirra and God love you!

On September 29th 1988 NASA resumed shuttle flights after the Challenger tragedy. I was a Navy Chief Petty Officer traveling home from New Jersey to San Diego. At that time it was still required to conduct official travel in uniform. During my lay over in Dallas, I was watching CNN coverage of the launch of Discovery when an elderly gentleman approached me and said "Well Chief, the navy sure put them up today..." (As I recall that Discovery mission was an all Navy crew). The man was familiar, but I couldn't remember his name and when I asked him he told he was Wally Schirra. He was proud of his NASA flights, and prouder still that he was a Navy flyer. A great example of an American hero

I grew up watching the later Apollo missions so I don't remember Mr. Schirra's flights. However, I read all I could about the original Mercury 7 astronauts. They were truly one of a kind and Wally's textbook 1962 flight made him a true American pioneer and hero. An earlier post on this site asked us "where have all the heroes gone?" and I have to agree. Think about the current crop of "heroes" that society admires today: rappers who have nothing to say and athletes who have nothing but shame. Would any of these "heroes" have the guts to sit atop a hundred-foot Roman candle and wait for someone to light the fuse? Ha! I challenge today's younger generation to at least read about men like Schirra, Glenn, Shepherd, Armstrong, etc. You will not see their like again.

Wednesday was my 57th birthday. In the future it will always be a bittersweet day because it will also be the anniversary of the day one of my heroes died. Of the original Seven, my two favorites were always Gus Grissom and Wally Schirra. I cried when Gus died and I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I'm gonna miss you, Wally -- beautiful tribute, Jay.

America's best. Godspeed.

I've often wondered what happened to the mongoose box. It first appeared at Cape Canaveral in the days just before the Mercury flight began during the early Atlas days and a lot of people got bit, me included. We always thought that Scott Carpenter, Walt Cunningham and Wally were the coolest ones, nothing seemed to phase them and they were always up to something.
One of our most memorable flights was the flight of Apollo 7 because it restarted the new Apollo Program after the fatal Apollo I fire. For those of us who were on the fire that night, it proved that we could overcome all obstacles and it was on to a moon landing almost a year later, thanks to men like Wally and Gus Grissom, true heroes in the best ways.
We needed a big boost and Wally and his crew gave it to us. He was truly one of America's best.
We'll miss you, Wally.

I shall always wonder that pilots and astronauts are willing, and even eager, to get to space. What acts of faith! Wally Schirra is to be admired!
My work with the company that produced the Atlas and Centaur launch vehicles in San Diego was satisfying. General Dynamics' desire to do it right made me happy in my electronic assembling jobs for thirty years.
Yes, we have gone far in sending unmanned craft into space. We have obtained much information. But, it is the courage of men like Wally Schirra that shows we may someday colonize other planets.
Please, Dear Lord, go with us!

The loss of this hero, a true hero to humanity, should make us all wonder "where are the hero's of today"? God speed Captain Shirra.

Another great one has passed from this world. Rest in peace my teacher.

Wally Schirra; always landed his capsule closer to the recovery team aircraft carrier than any other astronaut...once others had their try, he'd always one-up them. That sense of competition was something I always admired...and when he was suffering with a headcold on Apollo 7, battling with flight doctors to be allowed to take a decongestant from his pack, I realized he would do anything to give him the edge in accomplishing his goal, which was to give his best efforts to ensure the continued viability of the earlier phases of the US Space Program. The fact he could accomplish this with a sense of humor and professionalism, while gaining the respect of people around the world by explaining complex concepts in layman's terms assured his legacy would not go unnoticed, much like his pinpoint landings in the ocean. Missed...yes...forgotten...never.

One of the elite group who literally dared to go where no Man had gone before. Godspeed.

I can remember staying home from junior high school to watch and listen to the Mercury space program launches. We even held our breath when they lifted off. We had school book covers with their pictures and also space capsule information. They were the most exciting event to ever happen when I was young. They were so admired by all of America and I will never forget how brave they were to get into those rockets and leave the earth. I am still in awe of them. Everyone who goes to Florida should go see the Saturn V rocket which took America's Apollo 11 crew to the moon in July of 1969. Words cannot describe the size of the rocket.

I also feel there are very few people which I look up to in todays society. We shall miss the true hero's of the the early space missions.

Ironically, I just finished reading Wally Schirra's autobiography, "Schirra's Space." I was impressed that in it he did not make disparaging remarks about his fellow astronauts the way some others have done in their biographies. He was a real classy man and we’ll all miss him.

We have lost one of America's greatest legends. Wally will be sadly missed and remembered as one of our greatest space pioneers.

Simply the best.

Jay, Great story from a great journalist.
Wally was one of the greatest generation of astronuts. So now we know where the Mongoose reference comes from. Can't wait for the book.
See you at the Cape!

Thanks for a fine tribute and your fine reporting through the years. What a time it was in the 60s and early 70s - a space program that was full of adventure and great heros to admire. It is truly missed. Wally was one of the very best.

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