Walter M Schirra Jr, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts and the only man to fly on NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, has died. He was 84.
Schirra, who commanded the first rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit, died of a heart attack, said Ruth Chandler Varonfakis, a longtime family friend and spokeswoman for the San Diego Aerospace Museum. San Diego Medical Examiner's investigator Paul Parker said Schirra died early on Thursday.
An aviation buff since childhood, known to fellow astronauts for his colorful personality and independent streak, Schirra became the third American to orbit the Earth in October 1962. He circled the globe six times in a flight that lasted more than nine hours.
Americans in space before him were Alan Shepard and Virgil "Gus" Grissom, who flew suborbital flights in 1961, and John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, who orbited Earth earlier in 1962. The Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space, putting cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April 1961, weeks before Shepard's suborbital trip.
Schirra returned to space in 1965 as commander of Gemini 6 and guided his two-man capsule toward Gemini 7, already in orbit. On December 15, 1965, the two ships came within a few feet of each other as they shot through space, some 297.7 kilometres above the Earth.
It was the first rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit.
His third and final space flight in 1968 inaugurated the Apollo programme that put men on the moon the following year.