ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Astronaut Wally Schirra died early this morning. He was one of NASA's original seven astronauts and he was the only astronaut to fly in all three of the nation's first space programs - Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
NPR's Nell Boyce has this remembrance.
Unidentified Man: Five, four - ignition. (Unintelligible) lift off.
NELL BOYCE: That's Apollo 7 blasting off on October 11th 1968. It was a critical moment for NASA. The year before, a fire on the ground had killed three Apollo astronauts - shaking the public's confidence. And Apollo 7 was the first real test of the spacecraft that was going to take people to the moon.
To command this important mission, the agency picked Wally Schirra, a Naval officer, a test pilot and an experienced astronaut. The mission was a successful, but afterwards Schirra was low-key with the crew of the recovery ship that plucked him out of the ocean.
Mr. WALTER M. "WALLY" SCHIRRA Jr. (Mercury Astronaut): The fact that we went around the world and we've been around for a while is of course something we liked. But to terminate the mission where we wanted to - where our clothes were waiting for us - that was the high point for us.
BOYCE: This wasn't the first time that Schirra had been in space. He was one of NASA's original Mercury 7. In 1962, he became the third American to orbit the earth. During the flight, he saw a thunderstorm.
Mr. SCHIRRA: The lightning looks like a big (Unintelligible).
BOYCE: Later - during the Gemini program - Schirra pioneered the art of formation flying in space. NASA spokesperson Rob Navias says this was an important advance.
Mr. ROB NAVIAS (Spokesperson, NASA): Schirra flew the Gemini 6 capsule as close to one foot away from the other capsule to prove that we could actually rendezvous with another orbiting spacecraft which was critical for Apollo and then of course for the programs that followed.
BOYCE: Besides his technical skill, Schirra was known for his ability to talk with the public. Walter Cronkite often had him as a guest on CBS News. The two would chat during live coverage of space events, including the moon landing in 1969.
(Soundbite of news clip)
Mr. SCHIRRA: Walter, say something. I'm speechless.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Correspondent, CBS): I'm just trying to hold on to my breath. That is really something.
Unidentified Man: Ready for touchdown.
BOYCE: Historian Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum says Schirra and the other Mercury 7 astronauts will always have a special place in the nation's history.
Mr. ROGER LAUNIS (Chief Historian, National Air and Space Museum): These are the first one of Americans to fly into space. They really kind of blazed the trail that everybody has followed since that time. And we've assigned them a heroic status because of that.
BOYCE: Only two other Mercury astronauts are still living - John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. Carpenter remembers that one of trait Schirra's really stood out.
Mr. JOHN GLENN (Mercury Astronaut): Wally was always good for a chuckle. He made everybody laugh.
BOYCE: Carpenter says he is very saddened by Schirra's death.
Mr. GLENN: It marks the passing of a dear friend, colleague, brother and it's a bad time for everybody in the space program.
BOYCE: Wally Schirra died of a heart attack in a hospital in California. He was 84 years old.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.
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