Three days ago, USN Captain Wally Shirra died at the age of 84. Schirra was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and a true man of the space pioneers, flying on all three of the great space programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
On Sigma 7, the fifth Mercury mission, he spent over nine hours in space, a record for the American space program at that point. He tested star navigation techniques and space photography and made the first ever live radio broadcast from an American spacecraft to listeners on the surface. But most importantly of all, he became the first astronaut to have a wee nip in space after smuggling a small bottle of whiskey on board. A true test pilot of the age.
Gemini VI marked another important space first for this remarkable, often underappreciated space program: the first space rendezvous. Schirra redefined the meaning of space rendezvous from the low hanging, Soviet definition of rendezvousing spacecraft passing with several miles of each other (a definition which suited their purpose so they could claim Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 marked the first ever space rendezvous), to the proper definition of coming within feet of each other and stationkeeping. With his co-pilot, Tom Stafford, Schirra achieved the first one, meeting Borman and Lovell (of Apollo 13 fame) in their Gemini VII spacecraft at an altitude of 270km.
Schirra's final flight was Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission and the return to flight after the Apollo 1 tragedy. During the eleven days in Earth orbit, the crew, including rookies Eisele and Cunningham, proved the Apollo spacecraft fit for purpose and laid the groundwork for its operation on the subsequent flights to the Moon. They also made the first live TV broadcast from an American spacecraft, an Emmy award winning broadcast at that. Colds struck the crew for the first time in space and only generous doses of Actifed kept them sane for the duration of the flight. Schirra went on to make some heartfelt ads for Actifed after that.
John Glenn and Scott Carpenter are the only surviving members of the Mercury 7.