RIP Wally Schirra

May 3rd, 2007 by Barry Caplan | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Wally Schirra, one of Nasa’s 7 original astronauts, has died today at 84:

Boys my age and a bit older knew the name Wally Schirra. We weren’t old enough to know the strife of the Vietnam War yet (at least I was fortunate in that way) , and everything that was positive for us as a nation was encapsulated by the space race.

When I was a boy, in the late 1960s (gulp!) I had a series of age-appropriate books about space. I remember one of them had a drawing of the planets in the solar system, and one of the planets was mislabeled. I wrote a letter to the author or publisher, and they were kind enough to send me a letter back, saying even adults make mistakes sometimes. I think they also sent me the rest of the books in the series that I didn’t yet have. Probably my father still has that letter, I seem to remember it hanging framed around the house or his various offices for a while.

I have been writing, and especially alert to errors that betray non-rational thinking, ever since, and this blog is a direct descendant of that letter.

I had the good fortune later to pioneer some software for image processing and scientific instrument scheduling for NASA’s Hubble space telescope when I was just out of college. I also spent some time working on satellite ground control systems as Goddard Space Flight Center. During that period I had the opportunity to work with men who would become astronauts – Mission Specialists they were called then – on the Space Shuttle.

But it seemed like a different era by the 1980s – exploring space was not part of the American urge to explore past our boundaries that existed since the beginning of our history, and was all but built into the foundation of our Nation. It was bureaucratic and big science. The Hubble Space Telescope, as it was renamed when it finally launched in 1986, was loaded with 1970s-era technology, and had been on the drawing board since before 1950.

By the time the Challenger exploded, I knew the excitement of the Space Age was over forever, and the NASA era of my career ended soon after.

What replaced the Space Age in the hearts of America’s little boys (and hopefully little girls too) and the world?

By that time, Silicon Valley was emerging into people’s consciousness as a symbol of newer, faster, better. Exploration was to be in the realm of semi-conductors and processes relationships in the future, not into the physical space of the unexplored Western part of our continent or beyond the atmosphere up above.

That effort continues up until today, with no end in sight.

The earliest pioneers of Silicon Valley were contemporaries of Wally Schirra, and like the original set of Mercury 7 astronauts depicted in The Right Stuff, many of them have passed from the earth, figuratively if not literally.

However, many of the next generation, who truly brought Silicon Valley into the public consciousness, and have kept it there, are still alive – only a bit older then me. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bob Frankston, and many more, are heroes of the birth of the information age, along with many others. They are heroes to today’s boys and girls in the way that Wally Schirra and his fellow astronauts were heroes and inspirations to me and my friends way back when.

Still, I can’t help but feel that, as I read Schirra’s obituary today, that he is absolutely unknown to younger generations, and I can’t help but wonder if the pioneers of the Information Age will eventually become remembered only by history before their deaths by younger generations yet to come.

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