Everyone knows the buzz about Buzz Aldrin, our state’s most celebrated astronaut. But did you know he wasn’t the first New Jerseyan to blast into space? That honor belongs to Hackensack-born Wally Schirra, who on October 3, 1962, became the fifth American to orbit the earth as part of the original Project Mercury team.
Schirra, a 1940 graduate of Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, attended Newark College of Engineering (now NJIT), then enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy. During an illustrious military career, Schirra was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, three Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals.
But Schirra, who died in 2007 at age 84, is best-remembered for his achievements in space. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of his historic first mission, here are his notable space-age achievements:
• Named one of the original seven Project Mercury astronauts, 1959.
• Mission Command pilot during the Gemini 7 mission, which marked the first time a manned space flight rendezvoused with another spacecraft in orbit, 1965.
• When the Apollo VII spacecraft launched in 1968, Schirra became the first man to ride into space three times, and the only astronaut to fly in all three programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
• NASA honors: Two NASA Distinguished Service Medals; NASA Exceptional Service Medal; Navy Astronaut Wings.
• Co-anchored the coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing on CBS with Walter Cronkite, 1969.
• His 2010 induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame is one of many such honors. Schirra is also in the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame, National Aviation Hall of Fame, International Aerospace Hall of Fame, International Space Hall of Fame, and the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame.