When Wally Schirra Said, "Go to Hell"

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NASA / AFP / Getty

Wally Schirra, c. 1962

Wally Schirra once told Chris Kraft to go to hell. Remember the astronaut, who died this week at 84, for a lot of things, but put that particular bit of courage near the top of your list. Nobody, up until that moment, had ever told Kraft to go to hell, and the fact is, Schirra didn't tell him directly either. What he did do was tell Deke Slayton, the head of the astronaut corps, and he knew Slayton would tell Kraft, the director of all of the manned missions. Even when you're calling down your imprecation from the safe remove of the Apollo 7 command module high in Earth orbit, that took brass.

Apollo 7 was Schirra's third and last mission. Having joined the space agency as one of the original seven astronauts in 1959, the former Korean war combat pilot became the fifth American in space, orbiting the Earth in his tiny Mercury spacecraft in 1962. In 1965, he returned to space aboard Gemini 6 with co-pilot Tom Stafford, rendezvousing with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, already waiting in orbit in Gemini 7. After those two trips, there wasn't much that rattled Schirra, but agreeing to fly Apollo 7 at all still took some spine.

On January 27, 1967, just 21 months before Schirra's mission took off, the Apollo command module had killed three of his colleagues, when a spark ignited its pure oxygen atmosphere, immolating Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a lockdown rehearsal on the pad. Everyone at NASA already knew that the so-far unflown Apollo was a lemon. Not long before the three men died, they sat for a photo session with a model of the command module resting on a table in front of them it. In one of the outtakes never released to the press, they dropped the grins, bowed their heads and brought their hands together prayerfully. They inscribed the picture to Harrison Storms, the head of North American Aviation, the spacecraft's lead contractor: "Stormy," the inscription read, "this time we are not calling Houston!"

After the fire, it was left to Schirra, the commander of the three-man back-up crew that included space rookies Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele, to help oversee the gutting and redesign of the ship. Schirra was a bear about the job, stalking the factory floor, poking his nose into whatever the engineers were doing and making it clear when he did not like what he saw. If he wasn't satisfied with the answers he got, he'd go up to the executive suites and buttonhole Storms himself. "You guys want to fix this ship or not?" he'd challenge. "If so let me see you down on the factory floor with the rest of us."

After all this, it was no surprise that when the spacecraft finally took off for its 11-day trip, Schirra would be just as much of a pit bull about how the ship would be flown. NASA scientists had stuffed the flight plan with experiments and astronomical observations, but Schirra didn't want any part of them. This was an engineering mission, as the test pilots liked to call it, meaning that it was a shakedown flight for the ship itself, not a working trip for the men in lab coats.

Whenever an experiment crowded an engineering exercise, he'd jettison the experiment. When a prime-time broadcast was scheduled for shortly before the crew was to execute a tricky rendezvous, he scrubbed the TV show. "No TV until after the rendezvous," he pronounced. The ground objected but Schirra held firm. "TV will be delayed without any further discussion."

Things got more contentious still when all three men developed head colds, something that can be uncomfortable enough on Earth and is exponentially worse in the unfamiliar pressure of a sealed spacecraft. Reporters noticed the sparring between mission control and the ship and began writing about the "snappishness" of the astronauts. The Russian press weighed in too, pointing out the crew's "increased irritation due to the monotony of the spaceflight and the imperfect design of the systems for controlling the vital functions of the spacemen."

Finally, Kraft broke all protocol and proposed to speak to Schirra directly. Slayton offered to do it himself, figuring that as one astronaut to another he could communicate more candidly. Slayton did just that and later reported back to Kraft.

"I told him that the whole world was following this flight and that he and his crew were not coming across well," Slayton said. "I told him he was trained to do a job and that he'd better get busy doing it."

"And?" Kraft asked.

"And he told me to go to hell."

As Slayton must have known, however, doing his job was precisely what Schirra was engaged in for the entire 11 days aloft. Astronauts were pilots first and showmen second. And while the silver flight suits and the smiling press events and the ticker-tape parades belied that, they were hired for their unique understanding of the machines they flew and their hardheaded ability to coax the most from them. That was Schirra's gift. And if flipping off his boss was necessary to get his work done, well, he was happy to do that too. Kraft, 83, wound up respecting Schirra for that act of defiance. Schirra was happy to get that nod. But the fact was, the pilot in him really didn't need it.