Astronaut Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr., one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts and the only man to fly on all three of NASA's early space missions, has died at the age of 84, a NASA official confirmed Thursday.

Schirra, who commanded the first rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit, died of natural causes, according to NASA.

"We have spoken with his family and we can confirm he did die of natural causes. We hope to have a statement later today," Dave Stieitz, a NASA spokesman in Houston, told The Associated Press.

Now go buy The Right Stuff and see why these guys were among the greatest heroes of the 20th century.

A man after my own heart. Credit:

One of many Schirra anecdotes:

As a Naval officer, I was trained, essentially bred, to be a military aviator. I was a Naval officer on assignment, not an employee of NASA. But I made a decision that was apparently not retraceable, or it turned out that way anyway. By the time the second astronaut group arrived, they started sliding into the NASA family. Our first group, we didn't know what would happen: no one did. At the end of our NASA careers, it turned out that no one had a place for us in the military."

Schirra began working his way through the selection process, including the medical tests. He had a clue that he might get through when the doctors seemed very keen to have him undergo a minor throat operation as soon as possible.

"It was a tipoff by going for the operation, though I already knew I was being considered. They said, 'If you are willing to do this visit to Bethesda, which is an unusual place for a young Naval officer to go, we'd consider you for a candidate.' I had a node on my vocal cord. The doctor who operated said something to the effect of, 'I have never worked on somebody this junior, you must be going to the Moon or something!' By then my tongue was being held by forceps, I couldn't say a word!" - Francis French

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read the AP story here.