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Remembering Astronaut Wally Schirra

Updated on May 9, 2009

The Fifth American to Venture into Outer Space

Astronaut Walter "Wally" Schirra died last week (May 3, 2007) at the age of 84.

Schirra was one of America's first seven astronauts and the only astronaut to fly into space as a part of America's first three manned space programs - first with the original Mercury Program, then with the Gemini Program that followed and, finally, with the Apollo Moon Program.

While Schirra didn't make it to the Moon, he did fly on the first Apollo flight following the explosion and loss of three Astronauts during a test of the rockets for the flight scheduled before his flight.

Like his fellow Mercury astronauts, Wally Schirra was an average American who stepped forward and became an inspiration for the nation during a period of economic troubles due to stagflation, a hot war in Vietnam, a Cold War military standoff with the Soviets our perceived trailing of our Soviet rivals in the early years of the Space Race when the U.S. seemed to always come in second in that two nation race.  Wally Schirra and his six fellow Mercury Astronauts represented all that was best in America and their can do attitude served as a great inspiration for the rest of us.

Flying was a Part of His Family Heritage

Schirra was born in Hackensack, N.J. on March 12, 1923. His father was a World War I fighter pilot who, following the war, flew around the country with Schirra's mother barnstorming with their plane. His parents entertained audiences at the barnstorm events with his mother walking on the wing of their plane as his father manned the controls and flew it - a popular form of entertainment in that era of early flight. Their son, Walter Schirra Jr. took his parent's love of flying to the next level by breaking the bonds of earth and traveling in space.

Schirra learned to fly as a youth. In 1942 he received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and graduated from there in 1945. His first assignment was on the battle cruiser Alaska and, upon completion of that assignment, was admitted to the Navy's flight school at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. Following graduation and receiving his wings he was assigned to a Naval fighter squadron where he flew fighter jets for the Navy. With the outbreak of the Korean War, Schirra was dispatched to Korea as a pilot on loan to the U.S. Air Force. He flew 90 combat missions in Korea with the Air Force. He mostly flew F-84 fighters and, while in Korea, he is credited with shooting down one Soviet Mig-15 fighter and damaging two others during aerial combat.

Following the Korean War he served as a flight instructor and test pilot before responding to the call to apply for NASA's newly formed astronaut corps where he was accepted as one of America's original seven astronauts. On October 3, 1962, flying on the Mercury Program's Sigma 7 space mission, Schirra became the fifth American to travel in space. Six years later, in October 1968, he flew as commander of the three man Apollo 7 mission and became the first person in the world to venture into space three times.

Wally Schirra remains an American hero and will continue to be remembered in the annals of aviation history.

Are You a Turtle?

America's original seven astronauts were among our best aviators and were second to none in terms of professionalism and technical competence. But, to a man, they were also fighter pilots who had grown up with the air age when aviators were a special breed and walked with a certain swagger. There is no better example of this than the famous Are You a Turtle? conversations they had with each other and ground control while on live mikes with the whole world listening.

Schirra's humor and cool thinking in tight situations came through when, early in his first flight on Sigma 7, a buddy in ground control (many of whom were also former fighter pilots) broadcast the question Are You a Turtle? to Schirra and immediately put Schirra on the spot. It was one thing to embarrass a buddy with this question at a wedding or other social event where everyone knew each other and the private joke appreciated. But, in an era when astronauts were role models for youth and such language not only frowned upon in public but was also forbidden by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to be broadcast on commercial radio and television, giving the required response to this question in Schirra's situation was not wise. With most of the listeners around the world clueless as to what was being asked, Schirra, thinking quickly, flipped the radio from live broadcast to flight record mode, answered correctly, and came back live seconds later with "Roger that". Upon landing, he referred all who were in on the joke to the flight recorder to show that he had responded as required, thereby avoiding having to buy a round of drinks for all.

On the Apollo 7 flight, Schirra got even when he wrote Are You a Turtle? on a large object and held it in front of the cameras for Deke Slayton and Paul Haney to answer. Like Schirra, Slayton answered to the flight recorder but Haney was reported to have answered by saying that he would be buying when he returned.

So what was the mysterious answer that these astronauts were so reluctant to share with the world? Those of you who have read my Hub entitled Are You a Turtle? know that the required answer to the question is You bet your sweet ass I am. A member of the Order of the Turtle who does not to respond quickly and audibly with that answer is required to buy a round of drinks for all.

Answers to the Three Questions I had to Answer Before Becoming A Turtle

Here are the answers to the three questions asked in my Hub Are You A Turtle?

1 Shake hands.

2 A submarine

3 Legs

Shame on those of you who came up with more risque responses.

A Tribute to Wally Schirra

Actifed Commercial with Wally Schirra


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    • bulletproofchris profile image


      8 years ago from hutchinson, ks

      i agree with muldrake. astronauts are definitely my heroes! thanks for the great hub on some of the ground breakers of space exploration. i had never heard of Mr. Schirra, and learned something new and interesting.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Nice Hub!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Great job on the tribute to Walter Schirra. I enjoyed reading about Are You a Turtle! The astronauts are true American heroes!


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