Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra’s passing calls to mind an elementary-school classroom full of baby-boomers, fidgeting while our teacher adjusted the big wooden-cabineted television she had wheeled in from the audio-visual closet so we could watch the latest space shot.
Memory plays tricks, but I think I can remember Schirra climbing out of his singed Sigma 7 capsule on the USS Kearsarge as it bobbed in the blue Pacific. His piloting was so good he almost landed on the flight deck after six orbits. It was easier for him just to ride inside the capsule as the chopper hauled it to the recovery ship.
The big tv sets came out often in those days, as America raced the Russians to the Moon. We knew the astronauts’ names, and how many kids they had, and what the risks were if something went wrong. We read about them in Look, and Life, and hung on Walter Cronkite’s every word as he told us how it was going.
Once the screen went dark, and the set was rolled away, we probably paid a little more attention to the science our teacher taught us, and tried a little harder to get our brains around long division and geometry. Some of us even went on to become engineers, or doctors or airline pilots or teachers. But at the time, when Wally Schirra and Gus Grissom and Alan Shepherd were the rock stars of our tween years, we all wanted to be astronauts, and maybe we studied a little harder as a result.
That’s certainly the hope today, as an aging NASA struggles to recapture the excitement of early spaceflight with a return to the Moon and a promise of more. In a few years our children and grandchildren may be tuning in to webcasts of Ares I launches and Orion landings, and if all goes well perhaps they can replay the podcast of a landing on the rim of Shackleton or some other big lunar crater as they walk to school.
The courage and skill of Wally Schirra and his Mercury 7 comrades have carried us a long way, but we’re only getting started. As Scott Carpenter said when John Glenn lifted off, God speed! And thank you.
--Frank Morring, Jr.