A Conversation With Astronaut Wally Schirra (by Chuck Maddox)

Recorded in 2007
Robert-Jan Broer
February 12, 2019
A Conversation With Astronaut Wally Schirra (by Chuck Maddox)

A few weeks ago, whilst cleaning up my attic, I found a box with all sorts of watch stuff. Inside were also two discs that I received in December 2007.

On there, an interview between astronaut Wally Schirra and Chuck Maddox. This interview was recorded on February 17th 2007 in Beverly Hills, a few months before Schirra passed way age 84 on May 3rd 2007. Chuck Maddox passed away a year later, on May 12th 2008, age 46. A sad day that I vividly remember, as I received a phone call from Dale Vito (Ace Jewelers) who brought me this news whilst being on a family trip in Munich.

Wally Schirra was the only astronaut who flew on board of the Mercury (MA-8), Gemini (6A) and Apollo (7). As you probably know, he was the first astronaut to use an Omega Speedmaster in space in 1962. He bought it privately (as you can read here), and so did Cooper and Slayton. In 2012, Omega introduced the Speedmaster ‘First Omega in Space’, which was dedicated to Wally Schirra’s watch.

Wally Schirra CK2998

Wally Schirra’s CK2998

A Conversation Between Wally Schirra and Chuck Maddox

Part of the interview has been published in the US-based watch magazine International Watch, in July 2007.

I have received two discs with materials from Chuck, and large parts have never been published before. Since I can’t ask Chuck Maddox anymore, I checked with Omega and they were fine by the publication of this interview. Below, you will find the introduction text that Chuck sent to me in 2007, that gives some background on the meeting he had with Wally Schirra. It was at the time of the OmegaMania auction (later that year), where he was able to see a preview of the watches. Omega arranged an interview for him, with General Thomas Stafford, but apparently, he could not make it due to illness and instead Omega managed to get Wally Schirra to the event. Without further ado, please find the introduction from Chuck below. After that, there’s the audio interview for you to listen to (using SoundCloud). A full transcript of the interview can be found at the end of this article. It might clear certain things up from the interview, as Chuck made some notes there.

Tribute to Chuck Maddox

Charlie Duke, Chuck Maddox and Walter Schirra. Image (C) Chuck Maddox

Introduction by Chuck Maddox

“On 16 and 17 February 2007 I had the pleasure to attend the “Omegamania” event being held by Antiquorum and Omega/Swatch Group to promote the Thematic Auction of Important Omega Collectors’ timepieces. While for most people who were taking the time and effort to visit this event, the highlight was the chance to see, and in many instances handle and examine closely, the 300 lots of Omega timepieces that will be auctioned on 14 and 15 April 2007 in Geneva Switzerland. For me the highlight of the trip was an opportunity to meet and have an 20-30 minute interview with Lt. General Thomas P. Stafford, Retired NASA Astronaut, veteran of Gemini 6 and 9, Apollo 10 and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and later President of Omega USA and Omega Ambassador late Saturday afternoon the 17th. Alas I received an overnight email from Omega’s PR lady, my Swatch Group contact, that Mr. Stafford had come down ill and would not make the trip out to Omegamania. I was then, and still am more concerned for Mr. Stafford’s well being and health than disappointed for any missed opportunity to speak and converse with him. Most of the “early” NASA astronauts are in their late 60’s, 70’s and even older, and while they are typically in better health than the general populace they remain in the end human, susceptible to typical human frailties. Omega’s PR lady said that we should talk in the morning about alternatives for the missed opportunity.

So, since I had spent most of Friday the 16th viewing the Antiquorum displays, I thought I would visit the Omega Boutique which was located about a half a block down and across the street from my hotel, before going back down to the Antiquorum event to try to find Omega’s PR lady. The Omega Boutique is located on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, it is currently the only Omega Boutique in the USA, although there is one located in Mexico City. It is a nicely appointed store where you can nearly literally view much if not most/all of the current Omega Product lineup. It was nice to be able to see such a spread of current models, and know that if you wanted to see something that wasn’t on display that chances were that all one had to do was ask and the object of one’s interest would be produced. But for me, more of a Vintage chronograph collector than a current model maven, after about 10-20 minutes I realized that staying any longer would be diminishing returns for me. So, I proceeded down Rodeo Drive towards it’s end at Wilshire Avenue and the grand hotel where the Antiquorum was being held upon the 8th floor.

Almost immediately upon entering the Antiquorum suite, I met with Omega’s PR lady, who briefly went over how Mr. Stafford was under the weather, and she said that she had arranged another fellow for me to interview instead, Mr. Walter Schirra. My response was “That’s great!” my internal reaction was somewhat different. Since the last I had heard I had left the bulk of my research notes and my laptop back up in my hotel room, and of course without my laptop I couldn’t easily do any web research on my new interviewee. So I sat down at a (mostly) empty table, and took stock at what I had on hand: I had the two iPod’s and the “micromemo” voice recording devices that I had planned on using for recording the interview, I had a thin zip-bound document that had most of the material directly related to the questions I was going to ask Gen. Stafford, and a notepad. I decided that I could go through the list of questions I was going to ask General Stafford and cull out the one’s that were directly related to the Apollo-Soyuz mission as easily where I sat as I could anywhere.

Wally Schirra

Stafford and Schirra (c) NASA

So I decided to go through my list of questions and Xed out the one’s which would not be applicable to Mr. Schirra, and while I was doing that I would think of new questions to ask of Mr. Schirra and write them down. I decided that since it was 11am and the interview wasn’t slated for 4:30pm or so, I could spend an hour or two, see how things were progressing and if I really needed to I could either sprint up to my hotel or catch a cab for some quick internet searching. By about 1:30 or so, I had a list of approximately 36 questions scribbled down in a somewhat haphazard as they came into my mind, order. I quickly recopied the questions in a more logical order and by about 2pm or so, I had six handwritten pages of questions that I set off for the hotel’s concierge to get photocopied. The Concierge was very helpful, detailing an co-worker to duplicate the pages and I staged myself about halfway between the Concierge’s station and where the lady disappeared to make the photocopies and intercepted her on the way back to her boss. No less than 5 minues later, Omega’s PR lady happened to walk by where I was sitting in the lobby. I handed her a copy of my revised questions which she appeared to read quickly (I really have no idea if she was able to make out my handwriting), and said that we’d meet one floor above the lobby at or around 4:30pm to 4:45pm. By now the time was approaching 3pm and I could possibly force march up the hill to my hotel and then back down in time for the interview, but I decided there was no real gain in that, so I thought I’d just hang tight and run through my questions in my mind and relax in the time remaining before the interview was to start.

Wally Schirra

Wally Schirra and Virgil Grissom (c) NASA

It was probably a good thing I decided to stay… About five to ten minutes after Omega’s PR lady left, I noticed a gentleman in a blue shirt and slacks waiting in line to check in. The gals at the check-in desk were unfortunately not in “speedy service mode” that Saturday afternoon, and after about five or ten minutes, the hotel Concierge walked by and asked me if I was set. I said I had, but I took him aside and said “I am 99% sure that the gentleman in the blue shirt behind this pillar is Astronaut Wally Schirra, a VIP with Omega/Swatch Group who are here at your hotel”… He quickly walked to a door behind the check out counter and all of a sudden the line started moving. I glanced back at the door where my Concierge friend had entered and he walked out, flashed me a thumbs-up sign and went back to his station. A couple of minutes later, Mr. Schirra was walking towards the Elevators and by where I was sitting. I stood, said “Mr. Schirra” and introduced myself, mentioned I would be interviewing him, and welcomed him to the event before he went off to his room.

I went upstairs about 4:20 and waited to be shown where the interview was, and when Mr. Schirra appeared, I pulled out my two iPods with the ExtremeMac MicroMemo attachments affixed and at this point is when the recordings start.”

Audio Interview With Wally Schirra

For those who don’t know, Chuck Maddox was an authority on (vintage) chronograph watches, including the Omega Speedmaster in almost all of its aspects and editions. After his passing, friends like Jeff Stein (On The Dash) and Bill Sohne ensured that his work was kept safe on Chronomaddox. A dedicated website to Chuck Maddox and his work. I had the pleasure to know Chuck Maddox as well, and although the distance was huge, we had some great conversations by e-mail, mail and phone over the years. One of the first articles on Fratello was an interview with Chuck on all sorts of (chronograph) topics. A few years ago, I put all the parts together in one article, which you can find here.


As this interview was held on February 17th 2007, almost 12 years ago, a lot has changed since. The Omega Museum increased efforts to get more details and information to the surface. This might put things in a different perspective. We also know now which other watches were tested by NASA (as we reported here) and which ones were worn on the Moon by the crew (105.003, 105.012 and 145.012). Because of the latter, I left out an overview that Chuck included in his transcript and mentions in the interview (audio). It would only confuse people as this image could start to live its own life (again) on the internet. Also, the rights of this interview are with Chuck Maddox, I guess. I did not make any changes to the transcript below, except for the name of the Omega PR Lady who was working there at the time.

Full Transcript – Interview Wally Schirra (by Chuck Maddox)

Chuck: What is NOT on your official NASA resumé that people might find interesting about you?

Wally: Hmmm, My favorite expression is:

“I’ve left earth three times,

I found no place else to go,

Please take care of Spaceship Earth”.

Chuck: Very good, Very good!  I like that.

Wally: It’s quoted several places but it’s one of my favorite quotes.  I have an environmental company and I use that for the motto for it.

Chuck: Are you a collector of watches?

Wally: Not really, I have about seven or eight though.  A classic one from Bob Hope, I have this gorgeous one from Omega [ 1969 Special edition BA145.022 one of the first 28 given to Astronauts on duty from 1969 to 1972, total quantity made 39 ] and I’m trying to get them to give me one of the cheap ones now…  I’ve been working on it.  And I have a Breitling that they gave me at the National Aviation Hall of Fame on the 100th anniversary of Aviation.  All the honorees who were brought in each one got a watch from Breitling. So Omega doesn’t appreciate that I know, but …  [Omega’s PR lady comes back in bearing water] [Wally Continues:] We’re talking about a Breitling watch…

Omega’s PR lady: I don’t know anything about a Breitling watch…

Wally: Well we had more fun when we came back from the Smithsonian.  Everybody was all shook up and we finally found out that John Glenn flew a Heuer [He pronounced it Hew-er, not Hoy-er like all the Heuer literature would prefer to have it pronounced].

Chuck: Yes.

Wally: A stopwatch.

Omega’s PR lady: Yep. A stopwatch…

Wally: Scott flew a Breitling, and I flew the first Omega.

Chuck: Right! Right.

Wally: …  And then Gordon Cooper flew an Omega after me and then they [NASA] made it official for Gemini…

Omega’s PR lady: Yes.

Wally: …  We had actually bought our own Omega’s…

Chuck: Well, Gordon Cooper also flew with an Accutron, if I remember.

Wally: …  Yes, he had a second watch.

Both Chuck & Wally: yes…

Omega’s PR lady: Do you mind if I join in?

Both Wally & Chuck: No, not at all, no problem!

Chuck: Ok, so you do have some watches. As a matter of fact my next question was to go through John Glenn and the Heuer.

Wally: There is a great story about Bob Hope  We came back from Apollo 7 and gave a talk in Houston, and the talk was broadcast worldwide.  Barbara Eden presented us with memberships in the Screen Actor’s Guild, which saved my butt I might say. [laughter all around]  But Bob said “I want to give you guys a present; can I give you a car”?  And NASA said “NO WAY!”, we were all on active duty with NASA. He said “Can I give them a watch”? “They can give you a watch…”  Fine, that’s all right. So then about two months later, at the Bob Hope Classic that happened in the Desert, I was there and I was a guest of Bob, and he said “C’mon by for dinner and I’d like to give you something tonight”.  So my wife says “He’s not coming home tonight, then” [laugher].  So I went by, this on television, and Bob was all nervous trying to get the safe open. I found out later, [He couldn’t get the safe to open] to get the watch out.  So he got to the point where he’d called everybody can I can’t get the watch out, but he didn’t say watch, he just said “get it out [of the safe]” so we’ll have to do that some other time.  So about a month later, Walt Cunningham went to a special event and Bob Hope presented him his watch. It said “Thanks Walt, Thanks for the memories Walt, Bob Hope”.  A beautiful Vacheron Constantin.

Omega’s PR lady: Ahhhhhh!

Wally: a gorgeous watch…  And then I went to a dinner in Houston about a week later, knowing now what was coming with this watch.  I’m sitting at the head table next to Denton Cooley the heart surgeon, and Francis Gabreski [The ace pilot from World War II & Korea] …  It was a big long head table…  about a thousand people, all black tie.  And Bob Hope comes in, you see this package being passed down the table to me.  I look at the package and I said to Dr. Cooley, “Doctor, can you take what’s in there and put this watch [that Schirra wore to the dinner] in there, and take that one out.” And he says “Of course!” and I take the watch and put it on.  So he get’s it all wrapped up and now I have the Vacheron on.  So Bob Hope comes down and sees this package and says “You haven’t even opened the package yet!” and I [slides up his sleeve] and say “Well Bob, I hadn’t had the time!”  and Bob gasped.

[laughter all around]

Wally: He never forgave me! I had the watch he gave me on, and the other one was in the package.  Denton Cooley hid it underneath the table.

Chuck: Since you were the first person to wear a Speedmaster into space, Were you how Omega was brought into NASA?  Did you bring them into together or was it someone else?

Wally:  Well they [NASA] saw it.  Deke Slayton and I were both working on the mission and Deke was replaced and Scott Carpentier took that mission, and I took the next mission.  So Deke had an Omega and I had an Omega. We bought them, and NASA had nothing to do with it, we just bought them and checked them.  We took them to the Cape and Pan American Airlines was the custodian of all the technical stuff at the Cape and they took the watches and made them super-accurate.  All Six different positions, and I’d go into mission control and say “Hmmm…  your clock is off about two seconds!”  They’d say “What? What!”  [Laugher all around]  This was before the atomic clocks were out and so we had a lot of fun with that.  Well, after that, I flew it [the Speedmaster] and Cooper flew it, they said “we might as well make this regulation”.  That’s how it came out.

Chuck: Great, when did this first happen, when you and Deke bought your watches?

Wally: In Houston.

Chuck: Was this about 1961?  Earlier, or later?

Wally: Well, that’d have to be, well the mission was a… probably early 1962.

Chuck: Early 1962.

Wally: Yeah…  Just off the shelf I might add…

Chuck: I was going to ask you if you still owned any Speedmasters, but I see you’re wearing your gold one.

Wally: Well, the Speedmaster is in a museum in Houston, did you know that?

Chuck: Well, actually, I have a picture in here of your [Picture of Wally’s CK2998 Speedmaster which is item 335 in the Omega Museum in Bienne] watch in the Omega Museum in Bienne too!

Wally: Where?

Chuck: In Bienne…

Omega’s PR lady: In Switzerland

Wally: Yeah?

Chuck: In Bienne [ruffling through pages of notes prepared for the missed Tom Stafford Interview], yes, right here…  [finally gets to the right page]…

Wally: Maybe they moved it to Houston…

Chuck: Right there on the left, that’s supposedly your watch there.

Wally: That looks like it.  Well, I wonder what’s the one in Houston?

Omega’s PR lady: We’ll have to find out.

Wally: I only had one…

Chuck: Now that’s the other thing…  [Chuck waiting for the opportunity to drop the other shoe] Well, actually…  [flipping through pages]

Omega’s PR lady: Well, maybe it’s on loan…

Wally: Yeah…

Chuck: This is what us collectors do with our spare time.  We get together and we share and compare notes.  We obtained this from Marco Richon [who is the curator of the Omega Museum]:

[Movement serial numbers intentionally blurred to deter counterfeits]

… which shows you were given one in [April of] 1970…

Wally: Another watch?

Chuck: Another watch…  At least that’s what the paperwork says.

Wally: No, I don’t recall that.  Huh…

Omega’s PR lady: Maybe you donated it to a museum…

Wally: I might have…

Chuck: Or the GSA [The General Services Administration, a U.S. federal agency which oversees the watches issued to the NASA Astronauts] may have pulled it back from you at some point.

Wally: Yeah, well couldn’t have because it wasn’t a government watch, the one I had, the original one.

Chuck: Well yeah, that’s true.  Yeah…

Wally: In 1970? Huh…  Of course, I was long gone by then.  [His Apollo 7 mission taking place in October 1968]

Chuck: I think it says “09.04.1970” or “04.09.1970” and of course the Europeans have the…

Wally: yeah…

Chuck: the calendar [notation] different than ours…

Wally: but it says 1970 though…

Chuck: Right, so this is after your missions.

Wally: I’d gone, I was gone, huh.

Omega’s PR lady: Hmmm…

Chuck: So you’ve already answered how the Astronauts came to be issued watches from Omega, we’re pounding these [questions and answers] out…  How much attention did Astronauts pay to the selection of chronographs.  You said that you and Deke [Slayton] had said “we ought to standardize on this” and …

Wally: That was later.

Chuck: and that was later…  and we know that testing was done on five different types of chronographs, I assume just to make sure…

Wally: Just to pass them [make sure they] fit the bill.  Yeah…

Chuck: but did the average Astronaut in the Astronaut Corps pay any attention to that.  They probably had far too many other…

Wally: They had many many other things to do.

Chuck: Did anyone other than you and Deke [Slayton] have any input into the selection?

Wally: Well Gus [Grissom] did too, because he was one of us.  Sheppard and Grissom didn’t fly with any watches.

Chuck: Right!

Wally: That’s the other interesting part. So the first one up actually was Glenn with that Heuer stopwatch. That’s in the museum in San Diego [Air and Space Museum], by the way.

Chuck: “The clock is ticking”, yeah.  [Referring to the caption of the display in the museum in San Diego] Actually the person who wrote that article in International Watch is how I became to be associated with IW…

Wally: Is that you?

Chuck: Jeff Stein was the person who wrote that article,

Wally: I’ll be darned.  Yes.

Chuck: W going to have to edit this out of the recording because he did it under a pseudonym,.[Wally and Omega’s PR lady laugh]  He didn’t get a chance to edit the final draft someone at IW did the editing because he ran into a scheduling conflict and said just put it under a pseudonym because he couldn’t do a proof of the final version himself.

Chuck: Was there any special training on how to use the chronographs?

Wally: No, no we worked with them so much, there are all kinds of pictures of us playing with them.  The real key was presetting them to T plus 20 seconds, you knew that.

Chuck: I didn’t, would you please elaborate?

Wally: Before we got into the spacecraft, before we tied up everything, we’d advance the stopwatch to 20 seconds, just as I’m doing here [demonstrating it on his Gold Speedmaster] and stopped it there [at the 20 second mark].  And then after liftoff, they’d say “Standby — MARK!” and you’d start the watch again, because you were too busy with hands on switches to start the watch then [at the point of launch] but at T Plus 20 seconds it was all quiet, nothing going on, you could start it.

Chuck: and you’re all set and being pushed down by the thrust of the rocket.

Wally: Sheppard said “Liftoff clock has started”, but that was the clock on the instrument panel.

Chuck: Right.

Wally: In my case it was liftoff, I forget how the sequence went, it was all written out, but at T Plus 20 seconds I started the stopwatch [restarted the chronograph on the Speedmaster].

Chuck: What other timers were there on board? Were there panel mounts? Stopwatches?

Wally: There was a panel mount that could be updated from the ground.  And it had elapsed time.  In fact I went back to the space and rocket center in Huntsville. Now my spacecraft [his Mercury spacecraft] is in Florida at the hall of fame, but in Huntville, Ed Buckbee [first director of the Alabama Space and Rocket Center] had the hatch off so I could look in, and I reached in and wound the clock “ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka”…  It started running!

Chuck: Started right up!

Wally: It STILL WORKS!  [Laughs]

Omega’s PR lady: That’s funny!

Chuck: That’s great!  That’s Great!

Wally: Well, Cooper had trouble with his, and he used his Omega stopwatch to count-down to retrofire.

Chuck: I remember reading that.  Were there other stopwatches?

Wally: That was it.  Well, Cooper took a second watch because he was up for over 24 hours.

Chuck: He was up for what about 31, 32 hours?

Wally: Something like that.

Chuck: Was there any specific tasks or events that went to a specific timing device.  For example, did you time burns with your stopwatch [the Speedmaster].

Wally: Everything is on time, yeah. All earth orbit missions are on time, intervals of time.

Chuck: Right…

Wally: Of course you don’t worry about local time.

Chuck: Right.

Wally: In particular, on Apollo we were up there for 11 days.  We said “To heck with you guys! We’re not going to Houston time we’re going to set our own time zone”.

Chuck: I remember hearing about that.  I guess what I was saying did you rely on as much or more on instructions from mission control on when to start burns and stop burns or did you watch the timers or ?

Wally: We had both and if you didn’t have communications, you’d have a timer all set.  Sheppard counted me down for Mercury.  And I said, “that was a pretty good count Shep”, because later I was to land and said the Carrier was out of position by three miles. [laughs]  We’re going five miles a second, so.  A second can set you off a long distance.

Chuck: A pinpoint landing!

Wally: Pretty good.

Chuck: A Steely-eyed Pilot, there. [Wally Laughs]

Chuck: Was there a different feel to the earlier missions compared to the later missions?

Wally: I’m sure that’s true.  The Gemini lift-off, for example had a false liftoff … [referring to the first launch attempt of  Gemini 6A, on December 12, 1965, when the Gemini Titan was automatically shut down, one second after launch]

Chuck: Right!

Wally: …  and I knew it, because I had liftoff on my Atlas, Mercury-Atlas and I said we didn’t have a liftoff.  You’d eject normally, but the mission rule was to eject, I said “No, we haven’t lifted off”. They said “OK”.

Chuck: And you stayed with the rocket…

Wally: Tom [Stafford] bought it.

Chuck: … when you probably shouldn’t have.

Wally: By mission rules we shouldn’t have, but I knew better.

Chuck: You showed patience like you did earlier in the lobby earlier today!

Wally: Exactly!  [Wally and Chuck start laughing]  Yes!

Wally: Those women were carrying on long conversations!  I was wondering what they were talking about.

[by this time Omega’s PR lady is looking a little bewildered]

Chuck: The Concierge came by and asked me if I was ok with the help with the photocopies and I said “the gentleman behind this pillar here, I’m 90% positive is Mr. Schirra could you [nudge nudge]

Omega’s PR lady: Oh!  [Wally laughs]

Chuck: Do you think quartz watches are suitable for EVA [Extra-Vehicular Activity may refer to space walks or any other activity outside a spacecraft during a mission] use or space use?

Wally: They work very well…  No problems apparently…

Chuck: I’ve read somewhere that supposedly in space battery-powered watches drain twice as fast as they do on earth.

Wally: Hmmm…  I can imagine why, I know it gets very cold.

Chuck: I was doing research on Fortis watches for an article and that’s one of the things the Russians discovered, that battery powered watches drained the batteries twice as fast.

Wally: I don’t have any data on that.

Chuck: What other watches would you consider for the role that the Speedmaster has been used in?

Wally: You mean in the future?

Chuck: Well, yeah, in the future, are there other Omega products that you would think of [for use in space]

Omega’s PR lady: Only Omega products!

Wally: [Laughs] All of them!  Yeah! No, I don’t think that there are any preferences.  I found that was the one that did what I needed and it worked perfectly.  So I used it…    Oh! I know how the other watches showed up!  I had an issue watch in Gemini, and an issue watch in Apollo.  So, those watches went back into the system again [this relates back to our looking through the picture previously of Mr. Schirra’s watch being in Bienne and the table from Marco Richon – The Omega Museum].  So technically there were three watches [that Schirra wore in space].  Okay…

Chuck: One of the questions I wanted to ask was, like I said I had this all typed out and I had to redo it because the change of interviewee!  One of the questions was “How did an Astronaut come into the program, say in Gemini or Apollo, and how did he come to be issued a watch and what was his experience with it…

Wally: Oh I have a great story about that, in fact.  The seven of us were report in at Langley Air Force Base we’re in a room about the size of this area here [about 20’ x 40’ or 50’], in which there are seven steel desks, we called them LSD’s (Large Steel Desks), and this one engineer, his name is in some data, I could find it for you, he came in wearing a 24-hour watch. Said we’re all going to work in 24-hours now, so you all will wear this 24-hour watch.  We put it on, threw our watches off.  Within a week we’re all going crazy trying to read this 24-hour watch.   We were all military men, we could think 24, but we couldn’t read 24…  So about a week later he came in; Harold was his name.  And we said “Harold what time is it”?  And he [Wally makes the motions of: hikes up his left sleeve sees the 24-hour watch then switches and hitches up his right sleeve where he has a conventional 12-hour watch] it’s about 12:30 [Laughter all around]

Chuck: [laughing] and that was the end of that!

Wally: [laughing] He’d just switch arms… Harold Johnson I think it was…

Chuck:  Harold Johnson, ok.  In the final preparations for a mission or a liftoff, was a procedure for prepping the Speedys other than as you mentioned advancing the chronograph 20 seconds.  Did someone wind the watches or did you turn them in a week or two before hand so they could make sure they were running properly and accurately?

Wally: No, we kept running them; we wore them.

Chuck: You wore them?

Wally: They may have done that later, I’m not sure, that’s a good point.  Probably, Pan-Am may have had custody of it until a few hours before, but we wanted to be sure.  We wound them up so it was wound.

Chuck: They were set to either Houston or Mission time?

Wally: That’s a good question.  It was probably set to Cape [Canaveral] time.  [Cape Canaveral (later Cape Kennedy) was the launch site for all NASA missions, and was were Astronauts were based before their missions]

Chuck: You think it was set to Cape time? [I thought this was unusual, because it had been my understanding that all mission communications were handled out of Houston once the spacecraft had cleared the tower at the cape and it’d make more sense to have the watches set to mission control time].

Wally: Yeah, Yeah, because by then we’d be living at the Cape.  That’s a good question!

Chuck: [smiles] These were the questions I was coming up with upstairs about three hours ago!

Wally: We probably changed it to another time zone once we got into orbit.  Because we didn’t want to get up at Houston time. Or Washington time.

Chuck: Move it back an hour so you’d get an extra hour’s sleep!

Wally: What we actually did was when the mission had a particularly important event like rendezvous, we’d wake up three hours before that.  So we were ready for it, rather than stay up for 12 hours and do rendezvous.  So we’d make that like 10 o’clock in the morning.  We’d go back three hours and it’d be 7 o’clock whatever that was, our local time on board.

Chuck: Were Astronauts required to turn over their Speedmasters for service or maintaince at any time or at any interval?

Wally: I don’t recall that, no.

Chuck: Then, I suppose that it that wouldn’t have caused any anguish then, because they didn’t have to do that.

Wally: No, no!

Chuck: In general, in your opinion how did astronauts view the chronographs, did they like them? Did they not like them?  I’ve seen some things about what Buzz [Aldrin] has said about them…

Wally: Oh, Buzz will go to the opening of an Envelope.

[Laughter all around!]

Wally: He’ll go anywhere for money, and for th…

Chuck: This answer might be edited.

Wally: He knows I’ve said that…  Actually I think it was Gordon Cooper’s widow, no it was Gordon Cooper’s second wife, Susie, that said, “Buzz will go to the opening of an envelope”.  We all adopted that right away. Now I say “Neil Armstrong will lick the envelope shut”!

[Laughter all around … Omega’s PR lady makes “catfight sound”]

Wally: Buzz has made a PR monster out of himself.  He really has.

Chuck: Did most astronauts see it [The Speedmaster] as another part of their kit?

Wally: Just part of the program…

Chuck: They didn’t see it as emblematic of being an Astronaut?

Wally: By no means.

Chuck: It was just another of tool to get the job done?

Wally: Exactly.

Chuck: and treated it as such?

Wally: Yeah.

Chuck: Which space missions did you consider the most hazardous?

Wally:  Hazardous?  All three!  [Laughs]

Chuck: [chuckling] All Three.

Wally: Oddly enough the Atlas was the most hazardous booster, and the four of us who flew on Atlas have a 100% success.  Isn’t that amazing when you think of it?

Chuck: Yes.

Wally: Well we say Atlas blow up a couple of times.  That got our attention.  And the Saturn, it never had a problem, never.  It’s amazing when you think of it.

Chuck: …  and from what I understand, still, it makes the loudest sound aside from a nuclear explosion …

Wally: Oh yes the Saturn S-5…  Seven and a half million pounds of thrust.

Omega’s PR lady: Wow!

Wally: That’s a big number.

Chuck: It is.  What do you think of NASA’s current plans for Space Exploration?

Wally: Pretty well screwed up.

Oh, I have a couple of arguments I’ve recorded recently, and one of them is that we don’t know how a human can endure the long duration of a trip to Mars and back.  The moon and back, To Mars and back, one word. The moon and back, To Mars and back.  This could be a two and a half to three year mission.  You have not enough room in your vehicle for exercise devices, unless they do something like Von Braun proposed, in 1969.  Can you imagine that, he actually had a proposal.  He was the one who wanted a space station to begin with, to go to the moon.  If we had done that, we would not have beat the Soviets there.

Chuck: Right.

Wally: At any rate, to go to Mars and back, One, you have radiation, a monster problem.  Two, you have timing, the time is going to be real critical. You can’t use satellite watches up there when they are back here somewhere.  Three, you need a ton of water to drink a year. A year.

Chuck: Right….

Wally: Now where’s all that water coming from?

Chuck: And you have to lift all that out of the gravity well.

Wally: Yeah and I keep saying “They are going to try to find water on Mars”?  70% of the earth’s surface is water and only 1% of the water on this planet is palatable, 1%.  If you find water on Mars or the Moon is that going to be palatable?  If you can even find it.  Then they are going to purify it, how are they going to do that?  With all of the equipment to do that you need to carry a ton of water, per person [per year]. That’s just to drink…

Chuck: Right.

Wally: Not to wash your face, brush your teeth, sponge your body.  These are big, big problems.  And they are not addressing it.  They’re talking about going to the moon and building a moon colony. A lot of the astronauts are talking about that. Now on the moon, the dust can be a real nightmare.  It’s crystalline glass almost; it’ll cut up all the bearings and the seals.  So we’re worried about that.  And then they talk about you can use some regolith and make Hydrogen-3 out of it. [Scientists refer to the soil of the moon as “lunar regolith; it is also referred to as “moon dust”] That’s very nice, but you’re going to be up there for months at a time you would have to get in and out of the suit.  As soon as you get on to the moon and go back and get out of the suit you have to be sure all of those seals are protected and put it back together again.  If they leak you have a problem.  Now if you’re up on the moon, for a few months you aren’t going to be lucky the way the 12 guys on the Apollo moon missions were in that there were some solar flares in-between [the missions] that would have killed the astronauts if they had occurred when they were there.  So radiation is a MONSTER problem.  And they are not addressing radiation, water, duration/physical fitness, let alone taking care of physical problems.  You can have all kinds of physical problems.  You just can’t take care of them, immediately.  So it’s a tough mission.  Von Braun was ready to do it in the 1980’s.  [Laughs]

Chuck: Yeah…

Omega’s PR lady: We have about five minutes.

Wally: Well he’s got a bunch.  [laughing, as he looked at my list of questions]

Chuck: We got through quite a few of them…

Chuck: Do you ever wish you’d flown more missions? do you ever wish you had had a fourth mission?

Wally: I was hoping to get a lunar mission.  But once I got the first Apollo mission, I knew that was the end of it, That’s the kiss of death to command, well, not kiss of death in that sense, but end of the line if you command an Apollo mission.  And no one who commanded an Apollo mission had a second one except for Stafford which was Apollo-Soyuz. That’s only because Slayton couldn’t take command, he had to have someone else to do it.  So he ended up conning Tom into going up again on that one.  Which Tom enjoyed of course.

Chuck: And he adopted a son.

Wally: Tom enjoyed it so much he adopted two little Russian boys, and he loved it.

Omega’s PR lady: I know.  It’s amazing.

Wally: Of course we all got to know Valery Kubasov and Aleksei Leonov very well.

Chuck: If you could have your choice of Spacecraft past or present to fly on a mission what would it be? What mission would you fly and why?

Wally: Gemini 6 all over again. [no hesitation]

Chuck: Gemini 6 all over again?

Wally: That was a thrill!  For one, we surpassed the Soviets finally.  That in itself was a big event. And  two, doing the rendezvous.  I keep saying to define a “Rendezvous” if a man walks across the street, looks across the street at a beautiful girl like Omega’s PR lady here and waves that’s not a rendezvous, that’s a passing acquaintance.  Now if he can walk through the traffic, across the street and nibble on her ear, that’s a rendezvous.

[laughter all around]

Omega’s PR lady: I do like that, it’s very good.

Wally: I thought I’d make that personal for you…  [Laughs] I got a little blush out of you!  That’s pretty good! [Laughs]

Chuck: Do you have any advice for any youngster who might be interested in a career in the space sector?

Wally: Oh! I wish they would do that.  Of course we have the scholarship foundation, the NASA Scholarship Foundation. I’m active with Give Kids the World, which is a sequel to Make-A-Wish. We’re trying to get the kids excited about math, engineering, and science.  My greatest shock was quite recently when I read, I think it was in Aviation Week, something like 600,000 students in China in engineering, 300,000~400,000 in India and 70,000 in the United States in engineering. So we really got to get them stimulated.  But not with a dead-end street like the Mars mission.  We’ve got to do something that makes it exciting again.

Chuck: What would that be?

Wally: I’m not sure, that wasn’t my job.  [Laughter all around]  They got me excited because they said I could go higher, farther and faster.  So that did it.

Chuck: Hmmm.

Wally: I can’t get over this [pointing to the iPod recording setup] that’s pretty clever.

Chuck: I have a friend who dabbles in podcasts, I went over to his place and he had microphones, and the whole nine yards.

Wally: I’ll be darned…

Chuck: We tried these out and they worked as well as anything he had.

Wally: The fidelity is as good as the other stuff?

Chuck: It’s good enough to be listened to.

Wally: I listen to music with Bose headsets.

Chuck: Well, I plan on, I didn’t bring my laptop, it’s over in the hotel room, but I plan on bringing this into the laptop and burning this onto CD’s and I’ll be sending copies to Omega’s PR lady and you’ll get a copy too.

Wally: Oh, I’m pleased to hear that!

Chuck: That way you won’t be misquoted!

[Wally Laughs]

Wally: Now that I’ve had a rendezvous with Omega’s PR lady.

[Everyone laughs]

Wally: Now everyone knows I’m a smart Asssssssstronaut.  Most everybody knows that.

Chuck: John Glenn’s been back up into space.  If NASA called you Monday morning and said, “We want you to go”, would you want to go?

Wally: My favorite quote: One, I’m not that old, Two, I didn’t need the flight time – I’ve had 300 hours, John had less than five.  Three, I too would do anything to get out of that damned U.S. Senate.   Which is even more applicable today.

Chuck: Yeah.

Wally: I mean as of today.  I never wanted to go into politics; never did want to.

Chuck: Would you go into space again.

Wally: No, it would take three years to get to the point where I was able to command a shuttle mission, and I don’t want to be a strap hanger.  That’s what I called John, he was a strap hanger.  And Test Pilot’s and Fighter Pilots are very proud of their heritage.  And they don’t like to be degraded – I guess that’s the whole point – to a different level.  John went because he was excited and he had a big chance.  Now I’m not sure, but having had three flights, I didn’t need to go that way, as a strap hanger.  But I don’t blame John for going, it was a heck of a good idea.

Chuck:  I was going to ask you about books or films you’d recommend for interesting reading/viewing.  And I was going to ask you if there were any suggestions you’d have for an astronaut timepiece.

Wally: Oh I just had a neat book a British fellow did, called “Ascent”.  It’s about the Russians instead of the Americans.  I just read the first part of it.  And he throws in how the Americans did this like Wally Schirra did this and John Glenn did this, and the Russians are jealous that they’re in combat, well they were in combat in Korea like I was.  They talk about “Well, Wally Schirra got one of us today”. [Everyone laughs] It was kinda fun.  It’s an interesting book, it’ll go into the Space program which I have not reached yet as far as reading goes. It’s just released.

Chuck:  OK, look for it on Amazon! [Perhaps]

Wally: [laughs] Yeah!  The author’s name is something like DeNiro or something like that, I’m not sure.  And of course “The Real Space Cowboys” that Ed Buckbee did, I have to recommend that.

Chuck: If you were to come out with a new astronaut timepiece,  would there be anything you’d suggest like maybe better water resistance, titanium? …

Wally: Yeah lots of things.  Sure, updating.  Automatic movement, although you got to keep moving [to keep Automatic movements working], but I think that’d be the way to go rather than winding it.  Electrical as you say might very well be hurt by the environment.  But the interesting thing about time, is that it’s not an easy thing to work with.  I always talk about how Mr. Nixon called when Neil was on the moon, and it was “Hello Neil [pause of a couple of seconds]”, “Hello Mr. President!”  It took almost three seconds round trip, [for the transmission to go at] the speed of light.  Now the sun takes eight minutes; you have to go at night.  [Snickering] The next nearest star is four and a third years away.

Chuck: Alpha Centuri.

Wally: Yeah, Alpha or Beta Centuri…  That’s the nearest star. Have you ever seen one of those representations of the size of stars like Antares compared to our sun which is a little diddly dot?  That breaks you up, so somehow time needs to be worked with, not necessarily the speed of light concept, but going to different places in the solar system, time is a variable you have to work with. So Omega has to do some research there.

Chuck: Thank you very much for your time!  I hope I haven’t [Wally Interrupts]

Wally: Thank you very much for your time!  [Laughs]  You didn’t mean to say that did you?

Chuck: Actually I didn’t. [Laughing]

Wally: It was a second thought. [Laughs]

Chuck: I hope I didn’t ask you too many boring questions.

Wally: No it was fun.

Chuck: It was genuinely a pleasure and an honor to meet and to speak with you.

Wally: My pleasure.

Chuck: You are the fifth Apollo Astronaut that I’ve had the chance to meet in person.

Wally: Oh really?

Chuck: … …  When I was 11 [years old] in 6th grade I [and some classmates] met with the crew of either Apollo 15 or 16, I can’t quite remember which. They were doing the tour after their mission.

Wally: Well Charlie Duke is going to be here. [Charlie Duke was the Lunar Module pilot of Apollo 16 and the 10th man to walk on the moon]

Chuck: Right, so I will be able to ask him if he ever did a talk at Hemmings Auditorium in Elgin, Illinois.

Wally: Elgin, that’s another watch.

Chuck: It is that was right down the road from the clock factory.  And I met Jim Lovell at a book signing about a dozen years ago. [Jim Lovell was the command module pilot on Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the moon and Commander of Apollo 13]

Wally: I should mention that I have my original Rolex, that the Naval Academy Alumni Association gave me in 1965. I had to have the face redone, it still runs; it’s a self-winder so they [Automatic watches] do work.

Chuck: One of the questions I skipped was whether there are there any Astronaut reunions.

Wally: Of course. All the time.

Chuck: Well, thank you very much.

Wally: My pleasure. That’s been good…

Chuck: OK, we’re going to stop.  [Recording stops]…

Some additional thoughts…

If you’ve had the opportunity to see Mr. Schirra on television either in an Actifed commercial, being interviewed or being an expert commentator for a space mission or discussion, he comes across in person exactly as he does on TV.  A very genial fellow who treats you like a old friend who he hasn’t seen in a while.  Later that day when there was a presentation and roundtable featuring Wally and Charlie Duke hosted by Ed Buckbee, the assembled audience let out an audible gasp when Wally reveiled his age of 83.  Few people could believe it.  Frankly, he could easily pass for some one 10 to 15 years younger.  While Wally wasn’t the astronaut I prepared to interview, and I’m still concerned about Tom Stafford (I haven’t heard anything, so I’m hoping no news is good news), I’m very pleased that I had the opportunity to speak one on one with one of the people responsible for bringing the Speedmaster to NASA.  Even though I had to do a little bit of scrambling, Wally has a calming effect and I hope readers of this interview will enjoy it as much as I did…

Chuck Maddox ///

Topic of the Week
VIDEO – We Talk About 11 Different Speedmasters
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing (and Moonwatch)

Speedy Tuesday

Report: Sotheby’s Omega Speedmaster – To the Moon and Back Auction Contribution by Lawrence L. McGlynn – Space Collector & Author
Report: Sotheby’s Omega Speedmaster – To the Moon and Back Auction
Contribution by Lawrence L. McGlynn – Space Collector & Author
My Top 5 Speedmaster Models in Gold For less than €10.000 a gold Moonwatch will be yours!
My Top 5 Speedmaster Models in Gold
For less than €10.000 a gold Moonwatch will be yours!


Robert-Jan Broer
About the author

Robert-Jan Broer

Ever since he was a young child, Robert-Jan was drawn to watches, even though it were digital Casio and quartz Swatch models at the time. In the mid-1990s, his interest increased when he started to read about mechanical watches in... read more

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