Today is a sad day for NASA and our country, as we mourn the passing yesterday in California of astronaut Walter “Wally” Schirra. With Wally’s passing, we at NASA note with sorrow the loss of yet another of the pioneers of human spaceflight. As a Mercury astronaut, Wally was a member of the first group of astronauts to be selected, often referred to as the “Original Seven.” Wally is remembered in the close circle of the space community as the pilot who flew a “textbook flight” on his Mercury mission in October 1962.

But Wally’s spaceflight career went well beyond Mercury; on his next flight, in December 1965, he commanded the Gemini 6 mission with Tom Stafford as pilot. Wally and Tom carried out the first rendezvous in space, flying for hours in formation with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell in their Gemini 7 spacecraft, and completing one of the key steps along the path to the moon. The fact that this mission flew at all will always be known as a testimony to Wally’s cool precision under stress, for Gemini 6 experienced the first on-pad engine shutdown in human spaceflight history. Worse, the crew had a liftoff indication triggered by a faulty umbilical connection; according to mission rules, they should have ejected from the spacecraft. But Wally did not feel what he thought he should have felt had the booster really begun to take flight, and so the crew stayed aboard, saving the mission and quite possibly the program.

Wally’s last flight was Apollo 7, the first to be conducted in the aftermath of the disastrous Apollo 1 fire. This flight was another enormous success, accomplishing “101% of its objectives,” according to the post-flight debrief. It also made Wally the first man to command three different spacecraft, and the only one to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

It was impossible to know Wally, even to meet him, without realizing at once that he was a man who relished the lighter side of life, the puns and jokes and pranks that can enliven a gathering. But this was a distraction from the true nature of the man. His record as a pioneering space pilot shows the real stuff of which he was made. We who have inherited today’s space program will always be in his debt.

Michael Griffin