Walter M. Schirra Jr.
Sandy Huffaker  /  AP
Astronaut Walter Schirra smiles during a 2005 function at the San Diego Aerospace Museum. Family and fellow astronauts remembered Schirra, who died earlier this month, at a memorial service in California.
updated 5/22/2007 4:06:17 PM ET 2007-05-22T20:06:17

Three former astronauts remembered colleague Walter “Wally” Schirra as a top-notch aviator, national hero and inveterate prankster Monday at a memorial service.

Schirra, who died May 3 in San Diego at age 84, was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts and the fifth American in space. More than 200 friends, relatives and former colleagues attended the private service at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.

“Wally, I thank you for what you have done for me,” former Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter said. “And I thank you for what you have done for the nation and the science of space flight.”

Navy Capt. Bradford Ableson described Schirra as one of the best test pilots the country has ever seen.

“He towered above his generation and cast a shadow that is still venerated,” Ableson said. He noted that Schirra was destined to fly, because his father was a pilot in World War I and his mother walked on the wings of biplanes.

Schirra’s professionalism was accompanied by an unyielding sense of humor, those close to him said.

Former Gemini and Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford recalled a mid-December 1965 Gemini 6 flight when Schirra radioed Mission Control to report a UFO “in a polar orbit descending on a collision course with the Earth.”

“Mission Control got quite excited,” Stafford said, until Schirra started playing “Jingle Bells” on a small harmonica he had smuggled aboard.

Schirra 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, Schirra laid some of the groundwork that made the lunar landings possible and won the space race for the United States.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 Of the Mercury Seven, only U.S. Sen. John Glenn and Scott Carpenter are still alive. Gene Cernan, who commanded Apollo 17 in December 1972 and who is the last man to have walked on the moon, read a eulogy prepared by Glenn, who was unable to attend the ceremony.

Glenn wrote that his last communication with Schirra was an e-mail in which Schirra told him two new jokes.

“My lasting memory of him will always be that huge Wally Schirra grin,” Glenn wrote. “Eyebrows slightly raised, waiting momentarily for a reaction to one of his jokes or ’gotchas.”’

The former astronauts paid tribute to Schirra’s wife of 61 years, Josephine. “You have always been the wind beneath Wally’s wings,” Cernan said.

The ceremony concluded with a 21-gun salute and a flyover by three F-18s. Schirra’s cremated remains will be committed to the sea from a Navy vessel at a future date.

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