Sigma VII

About Wally
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Test Pilot
Sigma VII
Gemini VI
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Gotcha's & Turtles
Schirra's Space
USNS Wally Schirra


What is the legacy of Mercury?
Video © Courtesy of Apogee Books

Used with permission

Sigma "Σ" 7 MA-8

"I don't have too much to do today, so I think I'll get in some flying time."

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Spacecraft: Sigma 7 
Pad LC-14
Launch Vehicle: Atlas

Crew: Walter M. Schirra, Jr.

NASA Milestones:  
Six-orbit engineering test flight

Payload: Spacecraft No. 16, Launch Vehicle 113-D 

Mission Objective:  Man-machine in orbit for 9 hours


Altitude: 175.8 by 100 statute miles 
Orbits: 6 
Period: 88min 55sec 
Duration: 0 Days, 9 hours, 13 min, 11 seconds 
Distance: 143,983 statute miles 
Velocity: 17,558 
Max Q: 964 
Max G: 8.1 

Launch:  October 3, 1962, Cape Canaveral, Florida

 October 3, 1962, Pacific Ocean, Recovery Ship: Kearsarge

Mission Highlights:  Mission successful. Total time weightless 8 hours 56min 22 sec. 

Wally's Favorite Flight Milestones:

  • Falling asleep on the way to the launch pad.
  • Answering Slayton on the on board voice recorder "YBYSAIA"
  • Solving the coolant valve settings during the first orbit. Slowly adjusting.
  • Saving almost all of the attitude control fuel by minimum thruster use instead of automatic attitude thrusters. Flew in "Chimp Mode" rarely.
  • Preflight work on reading yaw attitude. This saved Cooper on MA-9
  • First Mercury flight to land near carrier and picked up to be placed by # 3 elevator.
  • Blew hatch on carrier deck and wounded right hand from recoil of push button, proving that Grissom did not blow hatch on his flight.

Wally's 50th on the ISS
click to enlarge


Schirra was named as one of the "Original Seven" Mercury Astronauts on April 9, 1959. NASA announced that the seven men, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, John H. Glenn, Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, Schirra, L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, had been selected from among 110 of the nation's top military test pilots to train as astronauts for Project Mercury, the first phase of the U.S. space program, involving one-man suborbital and orbital missions. Schirra, Shepard and Carpenter were from the Navy; Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton were from the Air Force; and Glenn was from the Marine Corps.

Schirra's special responsibility in Project Mercury was the development of environmental controls or life-support systems that would ensure the safety and comfort of the astronaut within the spacecraft during the mission. His tasks also included the testing and improvement of the pressurized suit worn by the astronauts.

On May 24, 1962, he served as backup pilot for MA-7, the three orbit mission flown by Carpenter. On June 27, 1962, Schirra was designated for America's fifth manned space mission and third orbital flight, originally scheduled for September 28, 1962. A malfunctioning fuel-control valve delayed the flight of MA-8 until October 3, 1962. Schirra piloted the capsule Sigma 7 on a six-orbit mission lasting 9 hours, 13 minutes, and 11 seconds. The capsule attained a velocity of 17,557 miles per hour and an altitude of 175 statute miles, the capsule traveled almost 144,000 statute miles before reentry into Earth's atmosphere. He proved that an astronaut could carefully manage the limited amounts of electricity and maneuvering fuel necessary for longer, more complex flights. He chose the name Sigma because it symbolized engineering precision, and the result was precisely engineered flight that many have termed a "textbook spaceflight." The capsule splashed down only 4.5 miles from the aircraft carrier Kearsarge in the Pacific Ocean about 275 miles northeast of Midway Island. He was later awarded with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for his work in the Mercury Project.




I named my spacecraft Sigma Seven. Sigma "Σ", a Greek symbol for the sum of the elements of an equations, stands for engineering excellence. That was my goal - engineering excellence. I would not settle for less.

I proved man's advantage in space in other ways. With the photographic experiments, for example, I took the approach of an engineer rather than a sightseer. I sought advice from professional photographers such as Ralph Morse and Carl Mydans of Life and Dean Conger and Luis Marden of National Geographic. I decided that a Hasselblad, with its larger film frame, was more suitable than a 35 mm camera. I had the Hasselblad adapted. A 100 exposure film container was installed, and an easy aiming device was mounted on the side of the camera. Focusing would not be required from the infinity of space, I figured. Finally I learned how to repair the Hasselblad.

Scientific observations were on my agenda as well. I observed the planet Mercury, not normally seen from earth, because the apparent position of Mercury is close to the sun. In orbit we're not affected by the diffuse light of the atmosphere, so I would see Mercury as it passed through layers of light. I tracked its passage against a yardstick of time.



Cece Bibby Painting Insignia On Mercury Spacecraft from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.


An Inside Tour of Sigma 7
all photos courtesy of Win Perkins
click to enlarge

ASCS Switches

Attitude Indicator Sat. Clock

ECS Controls

ECS Panel

Electrical and Communications Systems

Floor Foot Restraints

Couch Head Postion

Helium Supply Egress

Interior Shot

Interior Shot

Interior Shot

Interior shot

Abort Handle

Interior Periscope

Light Fixture

Lower Couch ECS Hookups

Map Case

Pitch and Yaw Links


Pilot Camera, Clock

Mercury RHC

Tape Recorder

Warning Panel Fuses


Window Swizzle Stick


Post flight notes written by Wally Schirra

Post flight notes written by Wally Schirra

Post flight notes written by Wally Schirra

Notes from 1959 regarding Mercury project

Notes from 1959 regarding Mercury project

Notes from 1959 regarding Mercury project

Notes from 1959 regarding Mercury project



Much thanks to Jim Sigler for having Wally's home town issue an official proclamation
 recognizing the 50th anniversary of the flight of Sigma 7 on October 3, 1962


'Sigma 7' at 50: Retro Space Images recall 5th US manned spaceflight

October 3, 2012 Fifty years ago, the United States launched its fifth astronaut into space.

Walter M. "Wally" Schirra, Jr. rode his one-man Mercury spacecraft atop an Atlas rocket to orbit on Oct. 3, 1962. The nine-hour mission on the "Sigma 7" capsule was the longest to date for a U.S. flight and set the stage for the day long, final mission of the Mercury Program that followed.

Schirra, whose choice of the Greek letter "Sigma" for his spacecraft's name was meant to reflect his flight's focus on technical evaluation, wrote in his biography that he strove for "engineering excellence." To that end, the almost flawless flight of Sigma 7 ended with a nearly-perfect splashdown, landing just half a mile (0.8 kilometers) from the Navy's recovery ship.

"I think they're gonna put me on the number 3 elevator" of the aircraft carrier the USS Kearsarge, Schirra joked of his parachute-assisted descent. It could have been the ultimate of Schirra's "gotchas" jokes that he infamously pulled on his friends, colleagues and later crewmates.

He could fall victim to them, too. Just three minutes into the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission, capsule communicator, or capcom, Deke Slayton radioed Schirra with a simple-to-ask but complicated-to-answer question, "Hey, Wally, are you a turtle?" A tradition carried over from World War II pilots, the correct reply, "You bet your sweet ass I am!" was not something Schirra could broadcast to the world below. The penalty for not responding, however, was having to buy all those listening a drink of their choice.

Not missing a beat, Schirra switched from live radio to his onboard recorder and spoke the "correct answer," as NASA's official transcript would later note.

Beyond the jokes, Schirra conducted observations of the planet Mercury, tracking its passage as seen through the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere, and flew the first Hasselblad camera in space, a model he himself chose and purchased at a local Houston photo shop.

Schirra also bought and wore on Sigma 7 the first Omega Speedmaster watch to fly in space, initiating the chronograph's long legacy as the timepiece of choice for both astronauts and cosmonauts to this day.

Schirra, who went on to fly Gemini and Apollo missions the only astronaut to fly all three of NASA's early piloted spacecraft died in May 2007 at age 84. His Mercury capsule, Sigma 7, is today on display at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Fla., where Schirra is honored as one of the Hall's original inductees.

Retro Space Images, which recently released for sale an archive of almost 500 images from the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission, chose the following photos to visually retell the 50 year old flight of Wally Schirra on Sigma 7.

Photos: NASA / Retro Space Images

Walter M. "Wally" Schirra, Jr. was one of the seven Mercury astronauts named by NASA in April 1959. A captain in the U.S. Navy, Schirra was 39 years old when he became the fifth American in space aboard the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission on Oct. 3, 1962.

Here, Schirra shows his Mercury spacesuit helmet to his 12-year-old son, Walter M. Schirra, III. Together with his wife Jo, Schirra had two children, including a daughter Suzanne, who had just turned five, four days before he launched on Sigma 7.

Schirra was originally scheduled to launch on Sept. 28, 1962, but a malfunctioning fuel-control valve delayed his flight. His booster for the mission, an Atlas LV-3B, or Atlas D Mercury Launch Vehicle, is seen here leaving the General Dynamics facility in San Diego, Calif.

The spacesuit that Schirra wore, the Navy Mark IV, was a full-body pressure suit originally developed by the B.F. Goodrich Company and the U.S. Navy to protect pilots in high-altitude fighter aircraft operations. Its silver color was from an aluminum-coated nylon.

(Above, right) President John F. Kennedy (at right) toured Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 14 with Schirra on Sept. 11, 1962, where he saw the Mercury-Atlas 8 launch vehicle being prepared for flight.


The Mercury astronauts didn't design or wear mission patches as later flight crews would, but working with RCA artist Cece Bibby, logos were added to the spacecraft. Here Bibby hand paints Schirra's "Sigma 7" insignia on the Mercury capsule.

Schirra rode the rocket, but it took a mission support team on the ground to make the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission a success. Here, Schirra (third from right in front row) poses at Complex 14 with his launch team.

Dee O'Hara (at right) served as the first nurse to NASA's astronauts, including Schirra. She famously became the subject of a "gotcha" when Schirra and fellow astronaut Gordon Cooper presented her an enormous "5 gallon urine sample" iodine-colored warm water.




Schirra launched at 7:15:11 a.m. EST on Oct. 3, 1962 from Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The Sigma 7 capsule obtained a velocity of 17,557 miles per hour and an altitude of 175 miles, traveling almost 144,000 miles in the course of six orbits.

Schirra made the first pin-point landing from space, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, 273 miles northeast of Midway Island, 4.5 miles (7.2 kilometers) from the target point and just half a mile from the USS Kearsarge, the mission's prime recovery ship.

Schirra and Sigma 7, as seen in their post-flight conditions onboard the USS Kearsarge, Oct. 3, 1962.

Schirra visited Washington, D.C., to receive the NASA Distinguished Service Medal from President Kennedy on Oct. 16, 1962.

All photos courtesy of  NASA/ via



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