May 5, 2007

Schirra Remembered for His ‘Gotchas’

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- More than two dozen former astronauts assembled Saturday at the Kennedy Space Center to honor the Astronaut Hall of Fame's newest inductees also remembered Wally Schirra, one of the space program's legendary old-timers.

Schirra, who died Thursday at 84, was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts and the fifth American in space. Colleagues recalled his steely nerves and jokester's sensibility.

Saturday marked the Hall's induction of space shuttle astronauts Michael Coats, Steven Hawley and Jeffrey Hoffman. But Schirra was the main honoree.

"Wally was a great gamester, a wonderful person ... He was a 'gotcha' guy," said former Apollo astronaut Al Worden. "Wally finally got the ultimate gotcha on us. He has a good excuse for not being here today."

Worden, a captain in the Air Force, said Schirra, a captain in the Navy, was his flight commander when he joined the astronaut corps in 1966.

"So I told him, 'Since we have the same rank, we have to approach this relationship very carefully,'" Worden said, adding a pause. "Next thing I found myself doing was getting him a cup of coffee."

The only Mercury astronauts still alive, former U.S. Sen. John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, were at the induction ceremony but didn't speak.

Among Schirra's notable gags were smuggling a corned beef sandwich to the Gemini 3 crew so they could eat it in flight and giving Mission Control a deadpan report of a UFO that matched a description of Santa Claus during the December 1965 Gemini 6 flight.

"We had a line between where there was fun and where there was business," Gunter Wendt, a launch pad leader who helped Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts get into their spacecraft, said Saturday. "We never crossed that line, but we had our 'gotchas.' We had our jokes."

Wendt recalled that after three astronauts died in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967, Schirra became more serious.

Schirra commanded the succeeding Apollo 7 mission in 1968, a flight that restored the nation's faith in the space program after the Apollo 1 disaster. Schirra also flew on the Sigma 7 Mercury mission in 1962 and the Gemini 6 mission in 1965, becoming the only astronaut to fly in all three of NASA's original manned spaceflight programs.

"After the fire, he changed quite a bit," Wendt said. "He was always a happy-go-lucky guy, but now he knew he had to do better than that."

Schirra could be demanding, but he appreciated blunt honesty, Wendt said.

During a redesign of the Apollo spacecraft, Schirra complained repeatedly about the alignment of the windows to managers at the manufacturer. Finally, Wendt told him, "'Hey Wally, we've modified it now three times. That's the best we can do. If you don't like it, let somebody else fly that damn thing,'" Wendt said.

Apparently satisfied with the answer, Schirra turned to Wendt and said, "Why didn't anybody explain it to me like that?"