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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 21:18 GMT 22:18 UK
Pioneer US astronaut dies aged 84
Walter Schirra, pictured with a model of the Mercury spacecraft in 1962
Walter Schirra was known for his personality as well as flying talent
US space pioneer Walter Schirra, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts who flew Nasa's earliest flights, has died aged 84.

He was the only man to fly on Nasa's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes.

In 1962 he became the third American to orbit the Earth. Three years later he led the first meeting of two spacecraft in orbit, as commander of Gemini 6.

"We at Nasa note with sadness the loss of yet another of the pioneers of human space flight," a Nasa statement said.

"We who have inherited the space programme will always be in his debt."

Mr Schirra, known as Wally, died of natural causes on Wednesday night at a hospital in La Jolla, California, the space agency said.

There are now only two surviving members of the Mercury Seven astronauts, who became national heroes as the US took on the former Soviet Union in the space race.

'Spacefaring nation'

Mr Schirra, who was born in New Jersey in 1923, joined Nasa in 1959 as a Navy test pilot who had flown combat missions in the Korean War.

The original Mercury Seven pose in their spacesuits, 1961 - Walter Schirra is first left, bottom row
The seven Mercury astronauts were at the forefront of the space race
On his first space flight he orbited the Earth six times during a nine-hour flight in a Mercury spacecraft, before landing the capsule successfully in the Pacific Ocean.

His third and final space mission, on the Apollo 7 spacecraft in 1968, was the first to lift off after a fire on the launch pad killed three fellow Apollo astronauts a year earlier.

Although Mr Schirra never walked on the Moon, his crew's 11-day 1968 flight was seen as an important step towards making the Moon landing the next year possible.

He resigned from Nasa a year after his final flight and joined CBS News, where he helped cover the Moon landing.

He was known as a colourful personality who liked a joke, as well as a talented pilot and astronaut.

"We shared a common dream to test the limits of man's imagination and daring," Mr Schirra once wrote.

"Those early pioneering flights of Mercury, the performances of Gemini and the trips to the Moon established us once and for all as what I like to call a spacefaring nation.

"Like England, Spain and Portugal crossing the seas in search of their nations' greatness, so we reached for the skies and ennobled our nation."

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