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Astronaut Wally Schirra, fifth American in space, dies at 84

Story Highlights

• Astronaut Wally Schirra was the fifth American in space and third to orbit Earth
• Schirra, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, dies in California at 84
• Schirra was only astronaut to fly on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions
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(CNN) -- Wally Schirra, one of the original astronauts in the Mercury 7 project, died Thursday at age 84, NASA officials said.

Schirra died in California, the officials said. He was the fifth American in space and the third to orbit Earth.

He was the only astronaut who flew in three of the nation's pioneering space programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

NASA selected Schirra as one of the first group of astronauts, along with Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton. (Space pioneer history)

He flew on the fifth Project Mercury flight, orbiting the Earth six times on October 3, 1962, and was commander of the Gemini 6 flight, which launched December 15, 1965. (Watch why Schirra had "the right stuff" -- but hated the movie Video)

Schirra was commander of Apollo 7, the first manned flight of the Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn 1B rocket. He and crew mates Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele successfully checked all the Apollo systems during the 11-day mission that launched October 11, 1968.

The Apollo 7 mission qualified the spacecraft for later moon missions. Schirra retired from the Navy and NASA in 1969.

He co-authored "The Real Space Cowboys" with Ed Buckbee, a former NASA public affairs officer and the first executive director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

The book highlights the Mercury astronauts and their contribution to the U.S. space program.

CNN's Rich Phillips contributed to this report.

Wally Schirra, pictured at a science-fiction summit last year in Pasadena, California, was the only astronaut to have flown in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.

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