Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr., who as one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts combined the Right Stuff — textbook-perfect flying...

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SAN DIEGO — Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr., who as one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts combined the Right Stuff — textbook-perfect flying ability and steely nerves — with a pronounced rebellious streak, died Thursday at 84.

He was the only astronaut to fly in all three of NASA’s original manned spaceflight programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Although he never walked on the moon, Capt. Schirra laid some of the groundwork that made the lunar landings possible and won the space race for the United States.

Capt. Schirra died of a heart attack at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., said family friend Ruth Chandler Varonfakis.

In 1962, the former Navy test pilot became the fifth American in space — behind Alan Shepard, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter — and the third American to orbit the Earth.

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Capt. Schirra returned to space in 1965 as commander of Gemini 6. More than 180 miles above Earth, he guided his two-man capsule to within a few feet of Gemini 7 in the first rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit.

On his third and final flight, aboard Apollo 7 in 1968, he helped set the stage for the landing of men on the moon in July 1969.

Of the Mercury Seven, only Glenn and Carpenter are still alive.

“He was a practical joker, but he was a fine fellow and a fine aviator,” Carpenter recalled Thursday. “He will be sorely missed … “

During the mid-December 1965 Gemini 6 flight, Capt. Schirra and crewmate Thomas Stafford unnerved Mission Control when they reported, slowly and in deadpan fashion, seeing some kind of UFO consisting of “a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit” — Santa Claus.

Then Capt. Schirra and Stafford played “Jingle Bells” on a tiny, smuggled-aboard harmonica and a set of sleigh bells.

Earlier in 1965, Capt. Schirra also helped smuggle a corned-beef sandwich onto Gemini 3, according to a NASA history.

“At times he gave us a hard time during his flight; technically what he did was superb,” said Christopher Kraft, who was Schirra’s Mercury and Gemini flight director and later head of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Capt. Schirra’s Apollo mission in October 1968 restored the nation’s confidence in the space program, which had been shaken a year earlier when three astronauts, including Grissom, were killed in a fire on the launch pad.

Capt. Schirra and his two fellow crew members were grumpy for most of the 11-day trip. All three developed bad colds that proved to be a major nuisance in zero gravity.

The following year, Capt. Schirra left NASA and retired from the Navy with the rank of captain, having logged more than 295 hours in space.

In one of his last interviews, last month with The Associated Press, Capt. Schirra said he was struck by the fragility of Earth and the absence of borders.

“I left Earth three times. I found no place else to go. Please take care of Spaceship Earth,” he said.

Survivors include his wife, Josephine, daughter Suzanne and son Walter Schirra III.

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