Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mercury Astronaut Honored with Navy Ship

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Leticia Fritzche

SAN DIEGO (NNS) -- The U.S. Navy launched the latest Lewis & Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Wally Schirra (T-AKE 8) in a christening ceremony hosted by General Dynamics' National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) March 8 at the shipyard's facilities.

The ship bears the name of astronaut and Navy Capt. Walter "Wally" Schirra, one of the original Mercury 7 pioneers.

"It's very moving to be here," said Capt. Lee Morin, the Navy's senior astronaut and principal speaker at the ceremony. "The influence he had on my life as a child growing up has inspired me, Americans and others around the world."

With a clock counting down the seconds to launch, Morin presented the ship to sponsor, Josephine Schirra, Capt. Schirra's wife, who along with a small group crashed the ceremonial bottle of champagne over the hull of the vessel. The vessel took off slowly at first, then accelerated as the fantail entered the morning waters of San Diego Bay. The ship's horn rang as guests cheered when the 689-foot ship took to the water for the first time.

"This represents a great honor for Wally," said the late astronaut's wife. "I know that he would have loved to have known a ship was named after him." The Schirras were married for 62 years.

Schirra graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1945. He holds the distinction of being the only astronaut to fly in each of the three space programs -- Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Former astronauts Bill Anders, Scott Carpenter, Jim Lovell and Tom Stafford were present to share in celebration.

Actor Mark Harmon who portrayed Schirra in the HBO mini series "From the Earth to the Moon," attended the ceremony and was availabble for photos and autographs. Harmon is also a star on the current ongoing CBS series "NCIS."

USNS Wally Schirra is the eighth ship of the T-AKE class. Its mission is to provide replenishment, deliver food, ammunition and other provisions to combat ships at sea. As part of Military Sealift Command's Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force, USNS Wally Schirra will continue to allow the Navy to maintain a worldwide forward presence along with allied ships at sea.