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This Day in History: Astronaut Wally Schirra

On this day in 2007, Wally Schirra passes away. He is best known for his service as an astronaut at NASA: He was the fifth American and the ninth human to travel into space. He was also the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.

He wasn’t the only astronaut to participate in all three, though. Technically, Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom should have done the same, but he never flew as an Apollo astronaut. Instead, he was tragically killed along with the rest of the crew of Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967.

Apollo 1 was then participating in what was supposed to be a simple launch rehearsal.

The rehearsal dragged on for hours as the crew sat on the launch pad. Trouble began just after 6:31 p.m. when Senior Pilot Ed White was heard to shout “Fire!” Then Grissom yelled: “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” Much of what was said in those terrifying seconds was garbled because of communications problems, but someone said something that sounded like “We’ve got a bad fire.” There was a plea to get out. Then a scream. Then silence.

The entire sequence had taken about 17 seconds. In the meantime, the interior of the Command Module had exploded in flames. All three astronauts were killed.

What had happened? And how could such a tragedy be prevented in the future? The Apollo program took a few steps backwards. Manned missions were delayed for months. More study, research, trial & error was needed, and several Apollo missions launched without astronauts aboard. But someone would eventually have to take the risk on another manned flight—those “someones” were the three men who boarded Apollo 7 on October 11, 1968.

Schirra was one, along with Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele.

What were they thinking, as they deliberately stepped aboard a rocket and took such a risk? It had been less than 2 years since the Apollo 1 tragedy. “Flying is a death-oriented business,” Cunningham later wrote. “You either accept the odds or you stay the hell out.”

Amazingly, then, Schirra, Cunningham, and Eisele stepped aboard the Apollo command module, ready to shoot for the stars again.

In an odd twist, the men’s hugest problem during their 11 days in space turned out to be a head cold. Zero gravity plus sinus blockages is a huge problem: Mucus doesn’t drain out of the head as it should. All three men were sick but working through it. The mood aboard Apollo 7 grew grumpier and grumpier.

As commander, Schirra’s interactions with Mission Control became testy, culminating in a fight about whether to wear helmets during re-entry. (A person can’t wear a helmet and blow his nose at the same time.)

Schirra won the argument over the helmet, but NASA likely won the war. Schirra, Cunningham, and Eisele never flew in space again. Apollo 7’s crew also became the only crew that didn’t immediately receive the Distinguished Service Medal. The Medal was awarded 40 years later, but Cunningham was the only one alive by then.

All in all, it was an unfortunate outcome for a man who was sometimes called “Jolly Wally” because he was such a jokester. He and his crewmates had taken a huge risk that seemed to go relatively unrecognized after they returned from space.

But for such bravery would we ever have landed men at the moon?

Perhaps today is a good day to remember the courage and determination of the pioneers who came before us—even when times were grumpy and perseverance was hard. Such characteristics have always made America great.

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