A Tribute to a Happy Warrior

by Walter Cunningham  

Many of us are adjusting to the loss of a friend. Wally Schirra and I worked together, flew together and lived together for more than three years, as the prime crew of Apollo 2, the backup crew for Apollo 1 and, finally, as the prime crew for Apollo 7. There were long periods when we spent more time together than we did with our families.

In our small fraternity, friendships are exceeded only by the bonds of mutual respect. Mutual respect is earned in the professional arena, forged under the pressure of critical situations. We would, and did, put our lives in each other’s hands—many times.

Much of the public knew Wally as a jokester. I, myself, have described him as a “happy warrior.” Wally may have been a happy-go-lucky guy, but he was so much more. Wally gained our respect the old fashioned way--he earned it.

Who could not admire Wally’s Mercury flight? It was test pilot perfect. It was certainly one of the highlights of his career, because there was none better in the Mercury program.

Wally’s contribution to the often-overlooked Gemini Program was to fly the first rendezvous in space; once more, picture perfect. But he earned my undying respect for something he did not do; he stayed in his Gemini VI spacecraft to fly another day when everything, except Wally’s senses, said to abort, with two lives hanging in the balance. For me, it was one of the two most impressive highlights of the Gemini Program, along with the Borman/Lovell 14-day mission.

When we were assigned the Apollo 7 mission following the Apollo 1 fire, Wally’s life took on a new sense of purpose. It was my honor to fly with my friend, Wally, on the first test flight of a brand new spacecraft. The importance of this critical mission, as well as accomplishing all of the mission and test objectives is sometimes lost in the discussion of colds in space and television camera schedules. No one should ever forget that Wally’s last spaceflight was described as “101 percent successful”.

Those are details. Wally should be remembered for something much more significant.

At a time when some doctors were saying that man could not live in space, Wally was among that small group of men who volunteered to go where no man had gone before. In today’s increasingly risk-averse society, Wally should be remembered for accepting a challenge to explore the unknown and prove that man could live and work in space.

Without people like Wally, no one today would be talking about “the right stuff.”

Throughout his life, Wally never forgot that his accomplishments carried with them an obligation. There are thousands of people, young and old, who have been inspired by the ease with which he shared his experiences with the public.

I am proud to have had Wally as a friend. I will miss him.

- Walter Cunningham