My Favorite Astronaut, or Zen & the Art of Laughing in Orbit

 

Neil Armstrong is dead, and so for the time being is any substantial effort by America to put people in space. People forget to be dismissive or incredulous about manned-space-travel when they realize the shuttle’s never flying again – or when someone like Armstrong joins the ancestors. His impulse to spurn the glare of celebrity-hood was duly noted and even praised by a culture that not too many years before (in part because of this semi-reclusive nature posthumously hailed as a virtue) would have easily mistaken him for any of the other men who flew during what we nostalgically term, “The Space Age.” If you asked the average American to name an astronaut from the 1960s, they would likely have mentioned Armstrong for being The First Earthling on the Moon, but more likely would have named that archetypical all-American hero John Glenn and even James Lovell, who was some guy Tom Hanks played in a movie.

 Fifty years ago tomorrow morning, just as I was heading off to school, the man who would become my favorite among all the astronauts took his turn to ride a Mercury spacecraft into orbit. Wally Schirra’s nine-hour, six-orbit flight about Sigma 7 wasn’t noteworthy for setting any world records. (The Russians had by then quadrupled our relatively meager number of manned orbits. It somehow seemed more fun in the days when we had some catching up to do.) Nor was it distinguished by any hair-raising crisis or daredevil flourishes. Indeed, the near-elegant perfection of Schirra’s Mercury flight from lift-off to his precisely-timed splashdown was far more appreciated by engineers than by the general public.

 
Even I didn’t take much note of Schirra’s flight until I paid closer attention to a recording of his transmissions. (You could actually buy this stuff on 45 RPM back then.) I was struck by how utterly unfazed he seemed with everything. He was not only joking with communicators on the ground, he was even…laughing! I don’t remember hearing any of his fellow Project Mercury astronauts laughing up there. Not Glenn, not Scott Carpenter, not Alan Shepard; certainly not Gus Grissom. And Schirra’s laughing wasn’t the nervous tittering you put on to make yourself forget how high and far you are from everything you know. He was messing with the solemnity expected of this occasion in the same manner he’d habitually mess with the ground crews or his peers. More than any of the others, he behaved up there the way I imagined my own father would: poking holes in other people’s uptight modes for perspective’s sake. As Tom Wolfe noted in The Right Stuff: “Schirra cut the jolly, fun-loving figure so well that people sometimes failed to notice how formidable he could be. But his emphasis, after all, was on maintaining an even strain, His pranksterish, rib-shaking, wild-driving gotcha intervals gave him plenty of slack when the time came to wind things up and get tight.”

 
Never was Schirra’s Ultimate Cool more conspicuous than on the morning of December 12, 1965 when he and Thomas Stafford were supposed to have lifted off the pad in Gemini 6 for a history-making rendezvous mission with Gemini 7. When the countdown reached zero, their Titan II booster abruptly shut down. For several long-ish seconds, no one was quite sure if this was going to be a replay of one of those awful 1950s-newsreel moments when the whole missile was going to explode. And why, an anxious America wondered, hadn’t the two pilots pulled their ejector rings? Apparently, Schirra, as command pilot, was exercising his prerogative to slow everybody’s roll rather than kill the mission – or, quite possibly, him and his co-pilot – over what turned out to be some kind of mundane plug glitch. “OK, we’re just sitting here breathing,” he calmly assured Mission Control. For this, he got another medal in addition to the one he received for carrying out the rendezvous three days later. Getting a medal for stillness rather than action – How very Zen!

 
I wish I could find among the hours of broadcast footage from that day the black-and-white video of Schirra and Stafford as they entered the so-called “ready room” where they climbed into their Gemini cockpit hours before the aborted launch. Broadcasters always told you how conscientiously clean that room had to be with all those white-smocked launch-team personnel making sure no dust or dirt entered the spacecraft with the astronauts. The first thing Schirra did when he got off the elevator was walk over to a far corner to rub his gloved finger over a rail. He turned in mock outrage to show an imaginary speck of dust to the crew chief. OK, maybe you had to be there. But this bit preceded one of history’s more frightening moments and here was Mr. Annapolis-grad-veteran-test-pilot performing low comedy as if it were beer call instead of T-minus-whatever.

 
Schirra achieved an above-average measure of fame for Gemini 6, and for commanding the first manned flight in the Apollo program in October, 1968 – when he caught the head-cold heard – or groused about – round the world. His name still didn’t glow in the dark as brightly as Glenn’s did, or Armstrong’s would. Still he got more famous after he quit the program to become an on-air analyst for CBS News; playing, if you will, John Madden to Walter Cronkite’s Pat Summerall throughout the lunar-landing phase.

 
He died in 2007 at 84. He would have been fun to hang out with, even though his politics were so deeply right-wing Republican that he said Glenn was the only Democrat he’d ever vote for (and I’m not altogether sure of that.) Still, laughing came so naturally to Schirra, as Norman Mailer once observed, that you were sure he could overlook any differences you had with him and chuckle over old times, his and yours.

 
And while I still haven’t found clips of that dust-mote gag, I did find among the CBS archival footage a pre-Gemini 6 interview with Schirra in which he’s asked the de rigueur question about duty and family:

 
BILL STOUT (CBS): Even though you’ve been there before, how do members of the Schirra family feel about the coming flight?
SCHIRRA: I’m sure there’s always a degree of apprehension. I hope there’s not fear. I hope to dispel fear by dispelling ignorance. And if I can explain the details of what were doing in our mission satisfactorily to you and to your audience, then possibly you know that’s what I’m trying to do for my family. To make them aware of what I am doing.

 

 
If I’m old enough to fondly remember Wally Schirra, then I’m also old enough to remember when dispelling fear by dispelling ignorance was a primary directive for everyone in American life regardless of where you stood on the political spectrum. It could be again, someday. In the meantime,  follow Captain Wally’s example and laugh at the scary stuff. It’s good for you.