Friday, May 4, 2007

Wally Schirra, 1923 - 2007

One of my childhood heroes died yesterday - Wally Schirra, one of the seven original Mercury astronauts. Schirra was the only one of the seven to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. His passing leaves only two of the Mercury astronauts left - Scott Carpenter and John Glenn. Looking at the photos from Schirra's missions, it's hard to believe that they were roughly 45 years ago . . . and that he was 84 at the time of his death! (Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon, is 76!)

When I was a kid these guys represented the acme of cool. Sure, I liked baseball and football players and idolized many sports figures, but astronauts played in a much higher league in my book. If you had asked me, at around age 10, "Brian, what do you want to be when you grow up," I would have responded astronaut, followed by archaeologist or astronomer. Of course, it didn't hurt to have my dad's older brother - an engineer for NASA in Houston - who sent me NASA-related books and toys. Visits to the Johnson Space Center in Houston or the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., always left me in rapturous awe. I wanted, for just 5 minutes, to try on one of the suits and sit in a capsule. To be honest, I haven't lost that enthusiasm . . . nor have I discarded that child-like yearning to climb into an old Mercury or Gemini capsule, just to have a momentary sense of what the astronauts experienced. (Jim Lovell, who flew with Frank Borman on the 14-day Gemini 7 mission - a mission that executed a rendezvous with Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford in Gemini 6 - likened life in a Gemini capsule to living for two weeks in the front seat of a Volkswagon Beetle.)

Schirra, his contemporaries, and their colleagues at NASA represented the best of American bravado and technological wherewithal in that period. Although critics like to argue that NASA and its astronauts were pawns in a "space race" fueled by the Cold War, one can not discount the commitment and personal bravery of these guys - the "right stuff" according to Tom Wolfe in his book about the seven Mercury astronauts. Additionally, the scientists and technicians who put Schirra into orbit - people like my uncle - reflected the optimism of the U.S. in those years before assassination, Vietnam and Watergate robbed the country of so much energy.

So here's a tip of the hat to Wally Schirra and his fellow astronauts, whether American or Russian. Let's hope that we can honor their legacy by recapturing that spirit of adventure in the 21st century.

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