Mercury, Gemini, Apollo: Walter Schirra, Wally as his family used lovely to call him, was the only astronaut who took part in all three early US space programs.

Why does IH commemorate Walter Schirra?

Because he was certainly an US astronaut but with Insubrica roots. His father immigrated from the Canton Ticino, more specifically from the Onsernone Valley, to Canada. Walter came back to Switzerland, in Ticino, several times.

Schirra’s story or that of his ancestors began in the CantonTicino in the fraction of Maltino (see Malten in the map below), where there were few stone houses in a small village of Loco, in the Onsernone Valley.

Onsernone is still today one of the most gorgeous and mysterious valleys in Ticino. Its particular characteristics are thick forests and spectacular, white waterfalls. It is still a rather isolated place that can be reached only by a winding road. The region borders in the North with Italy and the Valle Vigezzo.

Onsernone was economically a poor valley from where the male population was forced to emigrate, because of this fact, the region has, at present, a long history related to the emigration, typically touching upon people who happened to be masons, stonecutters, chimney sweeper and soldiers by education. For example, one of its most remembered soldier has been General Charles-Francois Rémond dit Remonda who served in the Napoleon army with General Mainoni.

In 1868, Walter Schirra’s grandfather, Giovanni Schirra, emigrated with his three brothers across the Atlantic and settled down in the US, where he married an emigrated Schwyzerin. Walter’s parents remained in the States and never came back to Ticino. After having served as an airplane pilot in the US Air Force, his father earned money doing double-decker air shows, and Walter, born in New Jersey in 1923, was used to manipulate regularly, as a 15-year-old boy, his father’s airplane stick.

Walter Schirra from Loco Canton Ticino

After having studied aerospace engineering, Walter Schirra began a career in the US Navy Forces, including flight operations in the early 50s during the Korean War. So, he was recommended for higher tasks. In 1959, he was presented to the public as a member of NASA’s first astronaut group. NASA hiring of Walter Schirra, meant that he was part of the legendary team of the first seven astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton and as mentioned Walter Schirra. On 3 October, 1962, he left our earth for the first time. He completed his maiden flight into space when he circled the Earth nine times with a Mercury capsule.

He became the sixth human in space. During the Gemini mission in 1965, he led, for the first time, two space capsules, and three years later, he commanded the first Apollo flight that became a milestone for the flight on the moon.In 1969, Walter Schirra left NASA and became a manager, independent consultant and commentator. He spent 295 hours and 15 minutes in space, flying 196 times around the world. In 2007, he died of cancer in California at the age of 84.

Schirra came to Switzerland between 1967 and 1977, at least, four times. In 1976, Wally Schirra was given the honorary citizenship, which was handed over during a great ceremony in Loco, by Bundesrat (English Federal Council member) Flavio Cotti. And what was Schirra’s opinion about Valle Onsernone? In fact, once being asked this question, Wally simply answered with the following phrase: ” In space, I’ve never been as frightened as driving from Locarno to Loco in the car. “


Museo della Valle Onsernone in Loco. Charming little museum, which collects historical artifacts of this remote valley.

Loco can be also the departing point for a gentle stroll, on Sentiero della Vosa. It’s a hike, more a descent, from Loco to the river Isorno, and up till Intragna. It takes about 3h times, best walked in late spring or early fall. A detailed description of this nice walk can be found here.