'I worked with NASA, not for NASA'|
An interview with astronaut Walter "Wally" Schirra
by Francis French
February 22, 2002
It has been said that if you go out to lunch anywhere in the nicer neighborhoods around San Diego, California, you'll probably be within listening distance of a former Navy Captain. If you are lucky, one of the people you'll see telling old tales in the corner with a mischievous grin will be Captain Wally Schirra, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. Schirra is the only person to have flown a Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission, and thus can present a unique view of the earliest days of manned spaceflight — tales which are now slipping from common memory into the realm of written history. Recently, my wife and I had the opportunity to sit back with Schirra in his favorite lunchtime spot, and discuss some of those stories first-hand.
Wally Schirra has been portrayed by many of those who remember those early missions as a prankster, a practical joker and a punmaker of renown. Decades after the stories began, it is delightful to see he is still at it. Neither we nor any waitresses close by escaped the impish plays on words, delivered with a hearty chuckle. He rarely missed the chance to light-heartedly rib his fellow astronauts about incidents they'd probably rather forget.
Like others in the Mercury 7, Schirra started flying at a very early age. His father was a World War One flying ace, and his mother had been a wing-walker, so it was a good family for a future pilot to grow up in. Being around airplanes also meant he got to meet many of the famous early aviation pioneers.
"Dad went to Canada, to learn how to fly with the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was commissioned a First Lieutenant, not a Second Lieutenant, when he finished. He often ribbed me in later years that it took me three years to become the same rank that he was when he was commissioned! He came to Texas, instructed there, and then went and flew with the (precursor to the) RAF, before the United States joined World War One. So he had quite an interesting background. He took me on my first airplane ride, where I could have a hand on the stick. I recall going down to Teterboro, New Jersey and aviation pioneer Clarence Chamberlin took me up on a monster airplane. I also remember seeing war hero Jimmy Doolittle fly a Gee Bee racer there. He was my childhood hero. Many years later, in 1969, I was lucky enough to go hunting with him, in Wyoming, for a week."
Initially, Schirra was not too interested in a military career — as a late teen, he was more interested in tinkering with sports cars, dating women, and trying to play swing music on the trumpet. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor made him change his mind, and he decided to take the test to go to West Point and begin a career in the Army. However, when sitting down to take the test, he discovered that Army candidates had to take an additional history test, so he quickly changed his application to one for the Naval Academy instead.
"I changed all the headings, yeah! I changed my mind at the last minute. But, truth be told, I had always wanted to go to the Navy. As a young kid, I was intrigued by a Naval Officer with the beautiful brown shoes and sharp gold wings walking through my home town, so that too had made an impact."
Schirra graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and while visiting his parents he visited the Army-Navy Country club. It was there that he met his future wife, Jo. Being wartime, they had only seven days to get to know each other before Schirra was assigned to a ship in Hawaii.
"Before I left for the Pacific, I picked my girlfriend there at the old Navy Country Club, and then suddenly I'm gone to a ship. She had only dated P-51 pilots, but I was a black-shoe, I don't think I'd even flown anything yet! Her father was a Navy Captain at the time. It was a classic wartime romance. We corresponded almost every day by mail. I came back and said, we're getting married — cancel all those other dates! It worked! And it's worked for quite a while."
Once the Second World War was over, the newly-married Schirra became the first of his academy class to enter flight training. Having become a naval aviator, he made ninety combat flights in Korea, shooting down two MIGs. He was hoping to be assigned to the test pilot school, but was instead assigned to China Lake, to test the Sidewinder air-to-air missile.
"That was the early days, in the California desert after Korea, my first tour in California in fact. An interesting time for me, we developed a weapon that would chase heat — that's why they're called a heatseeker. I saw it first as a mockup. I had a cigarette in my hand, and this little gold thing, an optical device, is following me around the room. I thought, whoops, what is this, knowing a jet engine is a lot hotter than a cigarette. And that was the beginning of Sidewinder. Interesting weapon, still in production, though modified now."
"One time, while testing the Sidewinder, I fired one, and it started doing a loop. I said, 'I'm not sure where it's going, but I'm not going to lose sight of it.' So I was flying inside, I had to do a loop inside of its loop — and it burned out. You're not sure until it's dead. It might burn out before it got to me, but I wasn't about to wait for that to happen!"
Eventually, Schirra got his wish, and was assigned to the Navy's test pilot school at Patuxent River, Maryland. He studied aerodynamic theory and worked closely with engineers, experiences that no doubt contributed to what happened next in his career. He was given orders to report to the Pentagon, with no reason given. On arrival, he discovered that he was being considered as a candidate for Project Mercury. Schirra was very skeptical at first, seeing it as a career interruption that he could not afford.
"As a child I went to a circus in New York City. They had a man shot out of a cannon into a net. At this briefing I said, that's who you want. You don't want one of these engineering test pilots. You just want a dummy to get into a capsule on top of a rocket — I'm not going to do that! In contrast to Glenn, who said, 'I want to go now!' Then, as I talked to my peer group, they kept saying, 'Do you want to go higher, farther and faster?' This is the way to go about it. We talked about how space was a totally different environment. So I went along with it for a while, and finally became intrigued with what was going on, and realized what it was."
In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe speculated that the Mercury 7 did not turn the project down as it was pitched to them as the equivalent of a combat assignment — which would be wrong to refuse — with the astronauts as Cold War warriors.
"We'd had that as part of our background, the competitive mode with the Soviet Union. While I was in test pilot school, I was writing a report on an airplane that just barely exceeded the speed of sound. One night, I looked up and saw the booster, not Sputnik — nobody really saw Sputnik, they saw the booster — flying by, and I said, that's doing Mach 25, what am I doing working on this slow airplane? I forgot about it, until I was ordered to Washington. Then I began thinking, maybe this is the way we should be going, not just sitting back waiting for something to happen — become part of it."
"It was a tough decision to make, because I realized I was going to lose a lot of opportunities. As a Naval officer, I was trained, essentially bred, to be a military aviator. I was a Naval officer on assignment, not an employee of NASA. But I made a decision that was apparently not retraceable, or it turned out that way anyway. By the time the second astronaut group arrived, they started sliding into the NASA family. Our first group, we didn't know what would happen: no one did. At the end of our NASA careers, it turned out that no one had a place for us in the military."
Schirra began working his way through the selection process, including the medical tests. He had a clue that he might get through when the doctors seemed very keen to have him undergo a minor throat operation as soon as possible.
"It was a tipoff by going for the operation, though I already knew I was being considered. They said, 'If you are willing to do this visit to Bethesda, which is an unusual place for a young Naval officer to go, we'd consider you for a candidate.' I had a node on my vocal cord. The doctor who operated said something to the effect of, 'I have never worked on somebody this junior, you must be going to the Moon or something!' By then my tongue was being held by forceps, I couldn't say a word!"
Schirra was indeed selected as one of the Mercury 7 astronauts, and he accepted the offer. The program he now found himself in was somewhat confusing to him — though amongst military test pilots, he was expected to look and act far more like a civilian.
"There were no civilians in the initial candidacy. As a result, I guess I had the opinion that only military were eligible. But then once we were selected, the word came down from Eisenhower, they will not wear uniforms. We were to do things without the appearance of being military. Eisenhower also fought to have all the spaceflights publically acknowledged and observed, in contrast to the Soviets being very secretive."
In one area, Schirra did already look more like a civilian — his haircut. The others all had military-style buzzcuts, but Schirra kept his hair longer.
"I didn't feel I had to be a Marine! I kidded the others about that. I kept the same haircut."
Schirra found that he had much in common with the other Mercury astronauts. As well as being test pilots, they were all from similar, in some cases sheltered backgrounds, with a similar set of values.
"All of us were small-town boys. In my little town I knew the police chief, all the policemen, the firemen — they were surrogate fathers. If I ever did anything wrong, one of them would be on my case, and if they ever came to the door, I knew I was in deep trouble. Today, people look at a police car and get worried. They get annoyed when they have to get out of the way of a fire truck — it's terrible. The police now are being harassed all the time. It's just a very sad transition. Talking about a small town, I played English football — soccer — instead of American football, because we couldn't afford the equipment. We just had shoes and shorts and you were in."
"I went to high school in Englewood, New Jersey. When I was 17, driving home at night, I stopped in a roadside diner and was having some eggs, and bacon and toast, and there was this black guy — the first time I'd ever seen one. He was having bacon and eggs. I looked over, and after a while he said, 'What do you expect, some grits and watermelon?' And I laughed, and he laughed — it was the perfect introduction to a black man. That was the first time I'd even seen one. You can just imagine the expressions, but he handled it so beautifully."
Schirra's upbringing and military background had given him little experience to cope with the instant fame and attention of being an astronaut. It took some time to adjust to his new role in the limelight. Each of the new astronauts handled it differently.
"I learned to live with it, and even have fun with it. But in quieter times, we really wanted to get away from it. Occasionally, when I am eating in public, I'm about ready to cut into this gorgeous entree, and somebody comes up and says, 'Wally, will you please sign this autograph for my son, he'll kill me if I come home without it.' My fantasy was to say, 'Don't tell the little bastard you saw me!' You have to learn to be tolerant of it. Shepard wasn't until his later years, then he became more mellow. I guess I was more outgoing. Shepard was what we called the icy commander. He wasn't like that with any of us, but with strangers he was that way. Much like Neil Armstrong is today — you'll find he's a lovely guy, a very nice man, but pretty much a recluse. Neil has handled the fame very well."
"John Glenn craved the publicity. I think even John would admit that. When he went into politics, that became pretty obvious! We all saw that he knew how to do public relations from that original press conference. We weren't prepared for that at all — we were all looking over, thinking, what is this guy saying? We finally did adapt."
The seven astronauts soon realized that they could be powerfully influential as a group. If they all agreed that something needed to be changed, and presented the idea to management as a unified group, it usually was changed.
"Walt Williams, our Mercury Operations Director, used the term 'seance' to refer to what we did. When we came out of there, we would have a unanimous opinion, a couple of black eyes, and a few bruised shoulders! But we did it very rarely, we didn't overuse it. It wasn't like in 'The Right Stuff' movie — that was just for entertainment."
Schirra was already used to trusting his life to other test pilots when it came to big decisions. He has described test piloting and the space program as the ultimate peer programs — you had to rely on your fellow pilots all the time.
"I think that is part of the game. When a test pilot comes off a flight, there is typically another pilot who is going to take it up, and he believes in the debriefing. You don't keep something to yourself. Within NASA, there were lots of things that were not appropriate to bring out to the public, because the press did not handle it well half the time. But within ourselves, we'd tell it all."
While the group had this deep level of trust, they could also be fiercely competitive with each other, each trying to prove that they were the best at everything. No weaknesses would be admitted to. For example, Deke Slayton began scuba training without revealing that he could not swim.
"Deke Slayton was the best diver we had — he went right to the bottom! Gus Grissom and I had to pull him off the bottom, and help him tread water. In the movie 'The Right Stuff', they showed him cavorting with some girls in a water tank in a bar — the last person you'd really have put in that tank would be Deke Slayton! He was a farm boy out of Wisconsin. A river or a cistern was about the nearest thing he saw with water.
"Our competition was like sibling rivalry almost, but we bonded completely, and forever. We are still very close — I am currently furious at Chris Kraft for giving Scott Carpenter such a hard time in his book. I'm giving Chris a hard time back, which I normally would not do."
Schirra was always careful to give the impression of being unfazed by anything, no matter how hard the training got. When a centrifuge Schirra was riding span out of control, and others were worried he would be injured, he emerged with a grin on his face.
"That story was a little overstated, but it was a very high G load. The centrifuge ran away, it lost its braking effect of stopping at about 13 or 14 G. I think we peaked at about 18. I am sure I blacked out finally, but apparently I resolved myself to live through it. It was something I didn't need to do, and I have fought the centrifuge ever since. When I visited Star City in Russia in about 1991, I couldn't believe they still had one. I told them, you guys don't need a centrifuge, they are a waste of time. Deke Slayton said the same thing to them when he was over there for Apollo-Soyuz in 1975."
The competition between the astronauts was to try and get that coveted first spaceflight. Schirra was devastated not to be the one picked.
"We all were, I'm afraid. That was a lot of competition we had. It was just one of those philosophies that gets to you. Each test pilot I know considers him, or herself — now that there are women — to be the very best. It's very demeaning to step down the ladder once in a while. You feel filtered out. But I really think I had a better flight because of the delay."
In April 1962, before Schirra had flown, some more future competition arrived, in the form of the second group of astronauts. Some of the original seven seemed resentful to the new arrivals, and reluctant to share the benefits. Schirra was the one who went out of his way to include them and make them and subsequent groups feel welcome — even being described as a "mother hen" by one astronaut.
"I was told several times by those guys, thanks for bringing us in. Pete Conrad and Jim Lovell I knew well already as they had been classmates of mine at test pilot school — Class 20. All three of us went through those early Mercury tests together, to see which one of us would survive, and somehow I did! Pete and I waterskied a lot back then, and he and I tied for second in our test pilot class. Lovell studied, so he became first!"
"Lovell had some kind of anomaly with his liver at the time of those Mercury tests and Conrad, they felt, wasn't able to live alone in space, or endure in space. The shrinks pretty well screwed up on that one. He lived on a space station for a month and flew Gemini 5, a long duration flight! On flights like those, it's not like you can eat out! One of my favorite memories is a picture of my Mercury launch, and that second group, called The Nine, standing there looking at the launch. Pete's fingers were crossed. It is a precious picture."
After serving as a backup to Scott Carpenter, Schirra's Mercury launch came on October 3, 1962, atop an Atlas booster, and he took it very seriously indeed. He considered himself an engineer and pilot, not a poet, and went as far as to ignore the view as much as possible. Schirra was not about to say something nice for public relations purposes.
"This is the game that people play. I'll never forget Alan Shepard, on the very first manned American flight, saying something to the effect of, what a beautiful view. I asked him later, did you see anything at all? He said, 'I couldn't see a damn thing through that periscope — but I had to say something nice!' Getting the job done was more my logic. I kind of adopted that philosophy."
Schirra named his spacecraft "Sigma 7", symbolizing engineering precision, and had the opportunity to independently pilot the spacecraft more than any previous flight. He considers that mission the first true piloted orbital flight.
"Glenn was turned around automatically, and was in automatic mode a lot, as was Carpenter. They used up a lot of fuel. So during my flight I put it in what we call a drifting mode, and I moved it back into attitude hold mode with minimum fuel, then put it in what I called 'chimp mode'. That didn't go over too well, but that was the point! It was getting back at the people calling us 'spam in a can'."
Mercury was a very successful program, but to achieve the objective of a lunar landing, there was still much to be done. A vital step towards making a Moon landing would be practicing rendezvous between spacecraft, and the Gemini spacecraft would be the one to do it. After serving as backup commander to Gus Grissom for the first Gemini flight in 1965, Schirra prepared for his second flight, commanding Gemini 6 and piloting it to a rendezvous.
"It was a crucial step. McDivitt and White on Gemini 4 had screwed up badly with rendezvous. Buzz Aldrin tried to get credit for our success, but he had almost screwed us up. Buzz had this academic mind, and realized that there were two ways of doing a rendezvous. One way — his way — was mathematically pure, but if you messed up a little bit, you'd really mess it up. I told him we were not going to do it that way. He was talking about perfection, and perfection is when you're docked — not doing the maneuver. So we looked at a different way — the right way of doing it. We spent a lot of time in simulators. Dean Grimm, a NASA engineer, was one of the guys I worked with. I am indebted to those kinds of people. Of course, Young and Grissom were our backups and they worked on it too — about five or six of us really spent a lot of time on it. McDivitt and White were more involved in doing their spacewalk and other things and didn't really understand what we were doing. They didn't really have time to do that. We were going to do it right."
Things did not go right at first. Schirra and his pilot, Tom Stafford, tried to launch aboard Gemini 6 on October 25, 1965, and rendezvous with an unmanned Agena rocket. However, the Agena exploded, and the launch was scrubbed. The bold decision was made to launch Gemini 7 first, quickly refurbish the pad, and launch Gemini 6 for a rendezvous of both manned spacecraft.
Gemini 7 launched successfully, and on December 12, Schirra and Stafford were ready to try launching again. But something went wrong. The Titan booster's engines ignited, but the rocket did not lift from the pad. Schirra could feel by the seat of his pants that they had not moved.
"I had heard the booster liftoff in Atlas, and this Titan didn't work exactly the same way, so I knew in milliseconds that something had gone wrong, that we had not lifted off. The rule was to eject, to punch us both out. That was kind of a mission rule, and that's another of those rules that was kind of a what-if. And the what-ifs are not all necessarily in a row, or in the proper sequence."
Had Schirra ejected from the spacecraft, it would have been damaged beyond repair, and the rendezvous would not have happened. Schirra chose not to follow that mission rule. Instead, he and Stafford sat through the tense moment, until it was safe to unstrap and exit the spacecraft. Because of that risky decision, they were ready to try again three days later. They launched successfully, and rendezvoused with the waiting Gemini 7.
"Did I tell you exactly what a rendezvous is? When a man looks across a street and sees a pretty girl, and waves at her, that's not a rendezvous, that's a passing acquaintance. When he walks across the street through the traffic and nibbles on her ear, that's a rendezvous!"
Gemini became Schirra's favorite flying vehicle, closest of all the things he flew to being the ultimate for a test pilot — the harmony of man and machine.
"I appreciated it the most. In Mercury, you couldn't translate. You could just change attitude. But you were actually flying it like a flying machine in Gemini. Apollo was just too big, like flying a big transport airplane, which fighter pilots don't really revere. Gemini was just about the right size — it was not much larger than Mercury, really, and it was optimized for both my right and left hand. I did translation with my left hand, which is a very delicate maneuvre — a bit like when the Shuttle docks with a space station. My left hand was better than my right hand for that."
With the rendezvous accomplished, Schirra had made a vital contribution to the success of the upcoming Apollo program. In mid-1966, Schirra, Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele were named as the crew for the second manned Apollo flight. It was to be an identical mission to the first Apollo flight, for which a crew had also been chosen — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Schirra could not see the point of flying a repeat mission, and his arguing succeeded in getting his mission cancelled. However, this also meant that his crew was without a mission, and they were placed as Grissom's backup crew.
"I had a prime flight scheduled, Apollo 2. Well, it could have been called Apollo 2. I'm not sure what the real number would have been, because the numbers were all changed later to honor Apollo 1. I convinced the NASA people it was a dumb flight, to do the same thing all over again, much like the second Mercury flight. We finally stopped doing that in Gemini, and I asked why we were doing it in Apollo, if we were in a hurry to get to the Moon and back. So they made us backups. I was furious. Having been a Mercury backup, then a Gemini backup — this was three backups, and that was too much. Cooper wasn't even a prime any more. We were being pushed around a little bit, and I didn't like that very much."
Walt Cunningham speculated in his autobiography that the changes in crew assignments were to allow Deke Slayton, who was grounded with a medical condition, a flight to command. Schirra would be essentially a "caretaker commander", standing in until Slayton received medical clearance. Schirra refutes the story.
"Walt might have said that, but I would never have done that. Walt has lots of little fanciful ideas like that, once in a while. My wife said about Walt, 'He's like a puppy dog, keep scratching him and he'll be nice.' I stopped scratching him, and boy, he got nasty! But he's all right, really."
There was something else happening that threatened the chances of this crew flying — it was becoming obvious within NASA that Donn Eisele was having a affair that might lead to a divorce. Deke Slayton had warned the astronauts that they were all "expendable", and any extramarital affairs were never to make it into the papers. The only astronaut who had filed for divorce, Duane Graveline, had been thrown out of NASA so fast that he never even appeared in his group's official photo. Schirra was aware of what was going on.
"Donn Eisele was already entranced with a girl at the time of our flight, Susie, who was messing around with him in those days, and he later married her. I made note of it, not to a great degree, but I made note of it. Some of the details were accurately shown in the 'From the Earth to the Moon' TV series."
"Some of the wives didn't keep up with the program. It started breaking apart during the Apollo days. Eisele divorced his wife after our Apollo flight, and then the flood came, the dam broke. At first, Cooper was essentially living apart from his wife, when he came in, but they came back together, and finally divorced after he left the space program. Walt Cunningham divorced after he left NASA, and remarried. Dick Gordon had six kids — divorced, and remarried a nice lady. I was looking at a book 'Astronauts and their Families', just the other day, it came out just before my Gemini flight. I was really shocked how few of those guys are married to those women anymore.
"Our kids today don't want to get married. Too many of their friends have been married and divorced already. They and all of their friends just don't believe in it, they don't feel very comfortable with the idea of getting married."
Schirra, on the other hand, is still married to Jo, the same person he was married to before he became an astronaut.
"We have managed to hang in for 55 years, which isn't bad. My wife says our marriage has lasted so long because I was away half the time!"
Schirra considered it a personal letdown to once again be a backup, but set to work with Grissom's crew on trying to solve the problems that were delaying the manufacture of the Apollo 1 spacecraft. The slipping schedule meant that Schirra and Grissom's crews spent most of 1966 traveling between manufacturing plants, keeping the Apollo program moving forward.
On January 26, 1967, Schirra and his crew did a full systems test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft while it sat on the pad. The next day, Grissom's crew entered the spacecraft for the next series of tests — and died in a fire. In May 1967, after the investigation of the fire had been carried out, Schirra and his crew were named as the new crew to fly the first manned Apollo mission.
The Apollo 1 fire, and the responsibility to successfully fly the next mission, brought a different attitude to Schirra's work. Being a test pilot, Schirra knew how to live with the loss of a close friend like Gus Grissom — but that did not mean he was going to allow the same kinds of mistakes to be made twice. The light-hearted, joking Schirra was gone for a while, replaced by a hard-nosed commander who demanded attention to every detail. There was one important person Schirra insisted would be working with him, if the next flight were to be a success.
"I arranged for Guenter Wendt to be our pad leader. He essentially had been working for McDonnell Douglas for Mercury and Gemini. After the Apollo 1 disaster I asked North American Rockwell to hire him as our Apollo pad leader. They said, 'Do you want a Barbie doll too?', or something like that. I said, 'I don't think you fellows understand where I am coming from this time. You screwed up. I want a good man on the pad.' He did all the Apollo flights after that — North American hired him."
Schirra also decided that, to show he was single-minded about the upcoming flight, named Apollo 7, he would announce that this would be his last spaceflight.
"I wasn't about to stay in NASA by then; I knew what it was. I had always believed that I worked with NASA, not for NASA. There's a big difference! By 1968, I saw a bureaucracy developing — the fun days were over. I made the commitment that I would leave NASA, and wasn't sure then that I might not even retire from the Navy. I had been gone from the Navy for over ten years, and had lost all those stepping stones, commands that would have entitled me to have been promoted to Rear Admiral. I eventually decided to retire from the Navy as well as leave NASA."
Once Schirra had made the decision to leave, he felt that it gave him far more freedom to make criticisms of the spacecraft design that he felt were necessary. He and his crew pushed the spacecraft engineers further than ever before in their detailed rebuilding of the Apollo spacecraft, and pulled no punches.
"It helped, and it worked, too! I'm afraid others didn't always like it — they didn't realize what a command was. Particularly Chris Kraft. He didn't make a big issue out of it, but he did say I was kind of grumpy. I wasn't grumpy, I was merely asserting my authority. The flight controllers felt like they had the right to the last word — they still do! But I was taking the risks. I have yet to hear of a flight controller killing himself by falling off his chair! They were younger men who had not really put themselves physically at risk. They could wear black armbands, but that wouldn't help me any. The result of it was, when we lost three men on the launchpad, I knew we were facing up to a real problem. I said, 'We are going to do this one right.' By then I had responsibility for two crewmen. Then you have the responsibility, much like the skipper of a submarine — it's your problem. You accept command. That's the way it goes — if you give me the ship, it's mine. Then I'll tell you what I'm going to do or not do, within the rules of the ship. That comes down from the Royal Navy, the authority invested in the commanding officer."
In the "From the Earth to the Moon" TV series dramatizing Schirra's Apollo flight, there was a scene in which Schirra is shown telling Slayton he will be leaving NASA, but hinting that he might stay if he were given command of a flight to the Moon. Schirra says that this was artistic license:
"That was overplayed, no. The rule had been established by then, that was a published rule, that he who commands an Apollo flight will not command a second one. And it turned out to be true. The only one who flew two was Stafford, who had Apollo 10, and Apollo-Soyuz, which doesn't really count. There were a lot of guys waiting in line."
"I could see that I was out of line already. If Cooper was already out of line, how the heck could I get back in again? Betty Grissom said that Gus was in line to land on the Moon — that's a bunch of hogwash. That was pretty well bent out of shape. Deke never said that. In contrast, Deke said that we of the original seven are done, there's a whole new crew now. That I even got that Apollo flight was unusual. The second group was brought in to go to the Moon. We were supposed to be out of there by then. It just turned out they needed me, so I stayed for the Apollo 7 flight. That was unique."
Schirra and his crew were now fighting to have control of many aspects of the planning for their mission. One battle that Schirra had was to have coffee aboard the spacecraft.
"In the real world, most Naval officers live on coffee. At that time I was very much into coffee, much more so than even now. The spacecraft fuel cells made hot water, 150 degree water. So you could reconstitute freeze-dried coffee easily. In fact, you drink coffee at about 120 -125 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the psychologists said it's a stimulant, that's all you want it for, it has no caloric value. So I let them go without it for a day — I removed it from their meetings. That worked out very well! I got my point across, and we had coffee on the flight."
There was another fight that Schirra did not win, however, that was fought right up until the hour of launch of Apollo 7, on October 11, 1968. The couches that the crew would sit in during the mission were of the old Apollo 1 design, and a newer, safer version would not be ready in time for this flight. The old couches were not designed to adequately protect the crew should the spacecraft abort during launch and come down on land. Schirra had insisted the rules on wind conditions for launch be revised, so that there would be no launch if there was a chance the spacecraft would be blown back onto land during an abort. As the countdown for the first manned Apollo mission neared the launch point, it was becoming obvious to Schirra that the winds were outside of the safe margins agreed upon — but no-one was planning to stop the countdown.
"That was not the time to launch that day, and I didn't want to. Those were the wrong conditions, that violated mission rules. They broke the mission rule that we had established, that said we were not to launch under those conditions. We were not to launch if the wind was to blow us back over the beach, which would then force a land landing if we had to abort. That would essentially have been a death penalty. The winds on launch day were such that they would have blown us back over the beach. There was no problem about which day we launched. It was really a case of, someone wanted to go. I fought that, until I became rather difficult, and I finally yielded, with great concern. I conceded when we got to about T minus an hour and counting, when I realized that this could be a hard one to redo. But they were the ones who should have called the shutdown, not I."
"I tried to play it light. We launched because everything else seemed to be in good shape, it was one of those things, you say, okay, we'll take a go. I was furious. It was not as jocular as it looked as on 'From the Earth to the Moon'."
The unfortunate incident set the tone for relations between the spacecraft and Mission Control for the whole flight. The mission was an extremely successful test flight of the Apollo spacecraft, which allowed the next mission to be the first to leave Earth orbit and travel to the Moon. Everything that happened was done on Schirra's terms, however, as he exercised his full command of the spacecraft.
"I said, okay, if you're going to be violating rules, guess what I'm going to be doing! We're going to judge these rules from now on. If you are going to break that rule and not give me a chance — then I am going to break some of the rules that you have given me problems with! I didn't want to do things that hadn't been tested in their proper sequence. We were to test the circuit of the television set prior to using it. That was scheduled for one day, then the next day we were to turn it on. But the day they requested us to play games with the television, I was trying to do a rendezvous with the booster. I didn't want to mix that up with something else that was not important. They wanted the television on on a particular day, and it wasn't scheduled for that day. I said we'll put it on tomorrow. That made sense to me — but not to them. Another real problem was over putting our helmets on for re-entry, because we all had severe head colds. They couldn't come up there and make us. Houston, you have a problem!"
"Apollo was a big, unwieldy vehicle. I had a problem with the flight controllers over that. I said, 'I am tired of changing attitude up here, we are being affected by the atmosphere.' They said, 'What do you mean?' It was such a large vehicle, it would try to fare its way like an airplane. There's a name for it, I forget the name for it, causing the spacecraft to try and get the trimmest attitude. They didn't ever anticipate that, and there we were, very sensitive to anything that caused the vehicle to move. You don't read that on instruments, you have to feel it. But having said all that, I felt a lot for the flight controllers, and worked with them, not against them."
Following his successful flight, Schirra resigned from NASA in July, 1969. Fifteen days later, Apollo 11 was on the way to the Moon, and Schirra partnered Walter Cronkite during the television coverage of the mission. Looking back now, Schirra says he is still undecided as to whether Apollo was a stunt or not.
"In essence, as I look back on it, the timeframe was that we had a real beautiful Cold War going on. The challenge was that we had made a mess, or Kennedy had made a mess, in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. In retrospect it seems that he had to do something to look good. The Apollo program concept of going to the Moon and back before the decade was out was quite a goal, which we all accepted, because we all loved the man. He was the only young, committed President we've ever had. We've lost that kind of commitment since. And yet, in fact, if you think of the inherent risk that we had, and the amount of effort the country went to — because just about everybody went to work on it — it's quite apparent that we were somewhat set up, I would say. We should have done it, but we didn't need to do it in that big a hurry. It would have been a much better program to have real piloted vehicles all the way through. In fact, von Braun made quite an issue at one point about having an Earth orbit rendezvous. Then going from Earth orbit with the vehicle to the Moon, then back to Earth orbit rendezvous. Guess what that is — International Space Station! We wouldn't have got there so quick, but we'd have something left for it."
"The word 'stunt' also applies in the sense that once we did it, everybody forgot about it. When I was broadcasting the Apollo missions with Walter Cronkite, the audience dropped tremendously, to a point where we couldn't even get airtime at the end. So when I look back on it in retrospect, I think of it that way."
Schirra wrote his autobiography, "Schirra's Space", in 1988, and outlined how he would have liked to have seen the space program develop — full use of the space shuttle, a space station, and a space tug. Thirteen years later, things have not turned out as he hoped.
"The station has not met the big goals as a scientific station, which it was supposed to be. If you bring a tourist in there, what is he going to do to the zero-G environment if he bumps into something? I had been on a review of the commercial use of space back in the early 80's. The Secretary of the Interior had formed a board of advisors for that particular project. We had senior officers from major corporations. We all concluded that there was no way you could make money in space. One of the senior officers, a company chairman, was asked, 'Would you put your stuff on these flights for science evaluation if you had to pay your way?' He said, 'No way, I couldn't afford to do that.' That pretty well makes the point. The space station was developed as a result, to bring the price of experimentation down to reality. They're not going to do it the way they are doing it now."
"I don't think the space station will ever do anything for exploration. I think the idea of putting people up there for a year or more is the only way you will get anywhere near the exploration concept. Now they are just getting started — not the time to think about going to Mars at all. If anything, NASA should start thinking about this planet, and creating a much more efficient booster. We had a project called NERVA back in the sixties. That was dropped — and it might today be just the way to start doing things."
"NASA has changed since Kennedy's day, too. A lot of people have become older, and left. But attitudes have changed, too. One of my rules was, always keep the door open. Come in anytime and talk about something. Recently, the doors have been closing rather regularly. Now you have to fight the bureaucracy — a bureaucracy is a closed-door organization. Send a memo instead. The excitement we had in the early days was the fun of working on something new, and challenging, and devoting a lot of time to it."
"That's like when people have asked if I'd like to go in the Shuttle — I said you don't get to fly it, except for landing, which I'd love to do. The rest of it is just boring holes, which I did — I've done all that. I wouldn't go unless I could command it, and that would take two to three years of training. I wouldn't want to spend that much time. I wouldn't do what Glenn did. I already have more flight time than Glenn has even now! When they asked me if I was jealous of John's shuttle flight, I said 'No, I'm not that old! I don't need the flight time, I have 300 hours in space; he had five! I too would have done anything to get out of the US Senate!' I used to do that to Shepard too, kidding him that it took me longer to get down on each of my three flights than he was up there on his first one. We had so much fun teasing. I miss him so much; we teased all the time."
A few weeks after we had lunch, I ran into Schirra again at a party. Over the noise in the room, I asked him if he was enjoying himself. He loudly exclaimed, "No!"
Surprised, I asked him to elaborate and tell me why not, as it seemed a very enjoyable party.
"Oh," he grinned, "I thought you asked if I was behaving myself!"
Such is Wally Schirra.
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Wally Schirra with Richard Billings, Schirra's Space, Bluejacket Books,
Donald Slayton with Michael Cassutt, Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the
Shuttle, Forge Books, 1994.
Walter Cunningham with Mickey Herskowitz, The All-American Boys, Macmillan,
The Astronauts, We Seven, Simon and Schuster, 1962.
Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1979.
My thanks to Wally and Jo Schirra, Colin Burgess, Erin French, and Jody Russell of the NASA JSC Media Resource Center, Houston, for their time and assistance with this article.
Copyright for this article is retained by Francis French. A condensed version of this interview has previously appeared in printed form.
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