- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Capt. Walter M. Schirra Jr., one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts and the only man to fly on NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, died yesterday. He was 84.

Capt. Schirra died of a heart attack at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, said Ruth Chandler Varonfakis, a family friend and spokeswoman for the San Diego Aerospace Museum.

An aviation buff since childhood, known to fellow astronauts for his colorful personality and independent streak, Capt. Schirra became the fifth American in space and the third to orbit the Earth in October 1962. He circled the globe six times in a flight that lasted more than nine hours.

Capt. Schirra returned to space in 1965 as commander of Gemini 6 and guided his two-man capsule toward Gemini 7, already in orbit. On Dec. 15, 1965, the two ships came within a few feet of each other as they shot through space, about 185 miles above the Earth. It was the first rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit.

His third and final space flight in 1968 inaugurated the Apollo program that put men on the moon the following year.

An inveterate prankster, he could be grumpy and recalcitrant in space, most famously during his Apollo mission.

But “on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, he flew all three and did not make a mistake,” said Christopher Kraft, who was Capt. Schirra’s Mercury and Gemini flight director and later head of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “He was a consummate test pilot. The job he did on all three was superb.”

President Bush said in a statement last night that he and his wife were saddened by the death of “Jolly Wally.”

“His ventures into space furthered our understanding of manned space flight and helped pave the way for mankind’s first journey to the moon,” he said. “Laura and I join Wally’s family and friends and the NASA community in mourning the loss of an American hero.”

Capt. Schirra knew how to fly when he left home for the Naval Academy in Annapolis and flew 90 combat missions during the Korean War. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals.

But he sailed through rigorous astronaut training with what one reporter called “the ease of preparing for a family picnic.”

“He was a practical joker, but he was a fine fellow and a fine aviator,” fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter said yesterday

During the mid-December 1965 Gemini 6 flight, Capt. Schirra and crewmate Thomas Stafford unnerved Mission Control when they reported, slowly and in deadpan fashion, seeing some kind of UFO consisting of “a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.”

Then Capt. Schirra and Mr. Stafford played “Jingle Bells” on a tiny, smuggled-aboard harmonica and a set of sleigh bells. The “UFO,” of course, was Santa Claus.

The former Navy test pilot said he initially had little interest when he heard of NASA’s Mercury program. But he grew more intrigued over time and the space agency named him one of the Mercury Seven in April 1959. Of the seven, only John Glenn and Mr. Carpenter are still alive.

Survivors include Capt. Schirra’s wife, Josephine, daughter Suzanne and son Walter Schirra III.

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