I wish I had something profound to say about Wally Schirra. But when I think about him, what I get instead are moments. Great moments. I remember watching Schirra’s Atlas booster muscling Sigma 7 downrange that day in 1962. A space-struck kid, I thought the astronaut was as cool and unflappable as any man who would ever ride a rocket.
His sense of humor was irrepressible, especially in the context of hazardous early space missions. Thus the ‘Jingle Bells’ moment on the harmonica, and his sighting of the ‘UFO’ — Santa Claus and his reindeer. “We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit… I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit…”
Tom Stafford was in on that gag on Gemini 6 (he would later go on to command Apollo 10). I was in college when Apollo 7 flew and recall the squabbles with controllers on the ground. To be fair, Schirra had a cold, a famous one that he treated with Actifed (he later did TV commercials for the product). But it’s also true that, cold or not, the astronaut had a rough edge; he seemed to yearn for space when on the ground but to dislike it thoroughly once aloft, a deeply human trait that made me admire him the more.
Indeed, Schirra always seemed to me the most likable of the Mercury 7. His straightforward, no-nonsense manner made him ideal as a CBS commentator (usually with Walter Cronkite), bringing the space program to life during the thrilling era of the later Apollo missions. These are great memories, none of them profound, but the realization that he was 84 when he died made me re-think those days that seem so fresh to me still. How does the guy who flew Sigma 7 become 84, when I can still hear the thunder of that booster as it pushed for black sky?