Space News
space history and artifacts articles

space history discussion forums

worldwide astronaut appearances

selected space history documents

'I worked with NASA, not for NASA' (cont'd)

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."

back to News

back to collectSPACE

© 2021 All rights reserved.
Questions? E-mail

Wally Schirra with Richard Billings, Schirra's Space, Bluejacket Books, 1995.

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, 1977.

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.

Discuss this article in collectSPACE: Messages