• Wally Schirra with his space suit at the Cosmosphere in 2005.

Astronaut Schirra visits museum, talks about space program

Sunday, November 13, 2005

As a witness to the country's early days of spaceflight, Wally Schirra is ready to see what will come next.

Schirra, the fifth American in space and the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, visited the KansasCosmosphere and Space Center this weekend, along with space historian Ed Buckbee, as the featured guest for a fundraiser for the museum's education programs.

Walking slowly but quick with a pun, a laugh or a memory about a story or practical joke, the 82-year-old retired astronaut took time to talk with The News on Saturday morning about his thoughts on space history and what's next for NASA and the world's efforts on space exploration.

Something that surprised Schirra earlier this year was NASA's latest plans for a crew module to return to the moon that look awfully similar to the gumdrop-shaped Apollo 7 craft that he piloted in 1968.

"I think it's fun to see that they're going back to the command module design," he said. "That got my attention."

The next trip to the moon will use technology less like the space shuttle and more like the tall, skinny rockets used to propel humans into space in the 1960s and 1970s.

"What NASA decided to do is to use the components that have been productive and successfully used, and package them with a new approach," Buckbee said. "Physics hasn't really changed since then."

"Newton's still there," Schirra added.

No one really knew what would come of the country's space endeavors in the early 1960s, the men said.

They knew they had a deadline set by President John F. Kennedy to get humans to the moon and back before the 1960s were over. What would happen later was anyone's guess.

But the competition and the desire to meet the deadline were perhaps unique to that time.

"There was a time when you couldn't walk down the hall in a NASA building where you didn't hear 'man,' 'moon,' and 'decade,' " Buckbee said. "That was it. Every day we went to work with that in mind, and it's hard to re-create that today."

Starting as a defense department project, the men watched as the United States made the conquest of space a peaceful endeavor, then cooperated with Russia - at the time the country's biggest competitor - and now could welcome China into the mix as the world's next space superpower.

Along with finding new scientific data on how humans will survive for a year or more while traveling through space, global cooperation may be the only way humans will be able to explore Mars, Schirra said.

"I have great reservations about going to Mars," he said. "One, we as a nation can't afford it. We need the world to do it. We had a Cold War going on, which was how we could afford to go to the moon and back."

Education and inspiring young people to learn about math, science and space should be a top priority for the United States, Schirra said, where numbers of engineering students have dropped dramatically behind India and China - countries that have put an emphasis on those subjects.

That's why places like the Cosmosphere are important, he said.

Schirra described the recent federal trial of former Cosmosphere director Max Ary, who was convicted of stealing and selling the museum's artifacts, as a "sad story."

"I hope it doesn't affect the role of the Cosmosphere, because this is the most outstanding museum I know of," he said. "Without hesitation I say that. I think it's a better display than the Smithsonian.

"I've known Max since the first time I came here, when it was still just a planetarium. What he and others did since then is unbelievable."

The space program isn't about one person or one aspect, Buckbee said, and the same is true for the museum.

"An institution that is as valuable to the community as this one will always withstand the storm," Buckbee said.