Former astronaut Schirra dies at 84: NASA

HOUSTON (Reuters) - U.S. space pioneer Wally Schirra, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts that flew NASA’s first flights, has died at the age of 84, NASA said on Thursday.

Wally Schirra answers questions during a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center in Florida in this February 24, 2002 file photo. Schirra, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, has died at the age of 84, NASA said on Thursday. REUTERS/ Rick Fowler

According to his family, Schirra died of natural causes on Thursday morning, NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said.

CNN reported that Schirra was in California and had been ill for several weeks, but Hartsfield said he could not confirm that.

A spokesman for Speak Inc., based in San Diego, California, which booked appearances and speeches for Schirra, said he lived in Rancho Santa Fe near San Diego.

Schirra was the only astronaut to fly on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights. His Apollo 7 mission in October 1968 was a 10-day testflight for procedures and equipment used on later flights to the moon.

It was the first flight after the Apollo 1 tragedy in January 1967 in which three astronauts burned to death in their space capsule during a launchpad practice session.

Schirra was a Navy test pilot when he joined NASA in April 1959.

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The Mercury 7 astronauts included Schirra, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, Alan Shepherd and Scott Carpenter.

They became national celebrities as NASA used them to promote the fledgling space program that was to compete in a space race against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

Of those seven astronauts, only Glenn and Carpenter are still alive.

Schirra’s other two spaceflights included the six-orbit Sigma 7 Mercury flight in October 1962 and the Gemini 6 flight in December 1965 in which he and Thomas Stafford directed a space rendevous with Gemini 7.