Sixty Years Ago Today, Wally Schirra Orbited Earth Six Times Aboard Mercury-Atlas 8

Mercury Atlas 8 11 photos
Photo: NASA
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In the era of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Artemis I, it can be easy to forget rocket science is, well, just that. Before our modern understanding of the ins and outs of spaceflight, pioneers like Walter (Wally) Marty Schirra took leaps of faith aboard primitive rockets and spacecraft to find these truths out for all mankind.
Six decades ago today, aboard the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission, Wally Schirra lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida's Launch Complex 14 at 12:15 p.m., Carried by an Atlas LV-3B booster vehicle. Atop the rocket sat a Mercury space capsule, built by McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. Though ostensibly more "tin can" adjacent than any NASA spacecraft to come later, the Mercury capsule performed more or less flawlessly in service between 1959 and 1963.

Six adrenaline-fueled times, Mercury-Atlas 8 orbited the Earth with an apogee altitude of 285 kilometers (177 miles). During the flight, vital flight control systems and navigation equipment that'd become vital to the later Gemini and Apollo programs were tested in real spaceflight environments. All the while, Schirra chatted with other NASA astronauts present at communications stations along the orbital path, including John Glenn and Gus Grissom. Proving then brand new communications hardware on board the flight was indeed capable and reliable.

Though still behind the Soviets in terms of raw endurance, Mercury-Atlas 8 was, to that point, the longest manned American space mission undertaken at 9 hours, 13 minutes, and 15 seconds. The ship successfully re-entered the atmosphere, creating a loud sonic boom over the heads of sailors aboard the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Renshaw recovery vessel before its main parachute deployment.

The spacecraft was recovered by another recovery vessel on the scene that day, the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge.From then on, it was only a matter of time before American manned spaceflight made further profound leaps. Culminating in the landing of a man on the Moon just under seven years later.
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