Riding with the Rocketman

Posted: Sunday, May 6, 2007 at 11:00 am
By: Doug Lund
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 When I read that former astronaut, Wally Schirra, died of a heart attack this past week, my thoughts immediately took me back about 15 years ago when I was chauffer to this American space pioneer.
Schirra was one of our original seven astronauts and the only one to fly in all three manned space flight programs; Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
He was such a skilled pilot and courageous leader that NASA put up with his occasional outbursts of insubordination.
For example, Schirra thought the centrifuge part of astronaut training was a waste of time and said so..not only here but while touring the cosmonaut training facility in Russia.
During the 11 day Apollo flight, all three astronauts developed head colds and were grumpy about it. When it came time to put on helmets for reentry, Schirra requested that ..because of their colds..they be allowed to skip it.
When flight controllers said no..put them on..Schirra said something to the effect of “come up here and make us.”
They splashed down bare-headed.
He was full of great stories and a real rebel.
I think he was in Sioux Falls giving a lecture at one of the colleges. Anyway, he was kind enough to do an interview with me on the Five O’clock News.
He talked about working alongside Walter Cronkite during television coverage of the first moon landing in 1969.
He also talked about his relationship with NASA..saying he always considered himself a naval officer on assignment rather than an employee of the space agency.
He wasn’t a big fan of the shuttle, as I recall. He didn’t see how it was really challenging our imagination for space exploration. (In later years, though, he said we have greater needs than going to Mars and other deep space ventures and challenged NASA to put its focus on the environmental concerns of our own planet.)
He also chuckled about the accuracy of the popular movie “The Right Stuff” in which he and the other early astronauts were portrayed.
Schirra called it mostly entertainment and not so much history.
After the news, the producer asked if I could give Schirra, who was traveling alone, a ride to the airport.
I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to have this American icon sitting right there next to me in my car..talking and laughing about his space exploits with the likes of John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter and GusGrissom.
The first  rocketmen.
Now, all but two are gone..and I’m feeling a lot older.

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