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Published: Saturday, 5/5/2007

Mercury 7 standout

IN THE pre-space shuttle era America's astronauts were well known to their fellow Americans. Their adventures were so heroic, so bold, and so dangerous, people were compelled to learn more about the new heroes brave enough to go where no man had gone before.

When Walter Schirra died Thursday at age 84, it was impossible not to flash back to the old, familiar names of the space agency's first manned spaceflight programs - Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.

Wally Schirra was the only man to fly in space for all three programs. The Navy test pilot also commanded the first rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit and, of course, he was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts.

He and his fellow astronauts, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, Alan Shepherd, and Scott Carpenter were national celebrities. They all had the "Right Stuff" of daring and determination backed by superb technical skills and steely nerves.

NASA eagerly showcased them to the world to promote its fledging space program, engaged in a space race with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Of the Mercury Seven, only Messrs. Glenn and Carpenter are still alive.

Besides his ground-breaking career as the fifth American in space, circling the globe with precision and setting the stage for future lunar landings, Mr. Schirra had a personality that was hard to forget.

He could be recalcitrant and grumpy in space but a prankster as well. Once he smuggled a corned beef sandwich onto his Gemini flight and also reported a UFO sighting. When he got a closer look, he said, it turned out to be Santa Claus.

"He was a practical joker," said Mr. Carpenter, "but he was a fine fellow and fine aviator." He eventually left NASA and retired from the Navy with the rank of captain, having logged 285 hours and 154 minutes in space.

In one of his last interviews the remarkable space pioneer reflected on the fragility of the planet he had seen from such a rare vantage point. "I left Earth three times. I found no place else to go. Please take care of Spaceship Earth," he said.

If only everyone on Earth shared that sentiment.

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