Apollo7 WalterCunningham

Walter Cunningham, civilian astronaut who helped restart America’s push to the moon after the tragic Apollo 1 fire, died on Tuesday (January 3). He was 90 years old.

The last surviving member of the the first manned Apollo flight, Apollo 7, Ronnie Walter “Walt” Cunningham can be seen as an outsider compared to most other astronauts of his time: he was first a fighter pilot, not a test pilot; he was a physicist, not an engineer; and he drove a Porsche, not a Corvette like most other early NASA astronauts.

But at heart, Cunningham was still an irreverent adventurer, an explorer and, by his own unbiased admission, a man who kept both eyes focused on the future and rarely got stuck in the past.

“Walt and his teammates made history [during Apollo 7]paving the way for the Artemis generation we see today,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “NASA will always remember his contributions to our nation’s space program and sends our condolences to the Cunningham family.”

How Walter Cunningham Became an Astronaut

Born on March 16, 1932, in Creston, Iowa, Cunningham grew up in a farming community located atop a railroad connecting the Mississippi and Missouri river basins. At the age of 8, he watched actors Wallace Beery and Clark Gable play naval aviators in the film Hell divers (1932), which gave impetus to his desire to someday become a pilot.

Cunningham later attended high school in Venice, a neighborhood located on the west side of Los Angeles, California. After graduation, when his classmates were mobilized for duty in Korea, Cunningham enlisted in the Navy in 1951.

Initially and “kind of silly,” he later recalled in a NASA Oral History, Cunningham aspires to study architecture after high school. But after enlisting, he instead completed flight training, went on active duty, then transferred to the Marine Corps.

“In the Navy, you risked being assigned to torpedo boats or transport pilots,” he said of his decision to transfer. “The Marine Corps makes sure you fly single-engine fighters on your first tour.” And though Cunningham never saw actual aerial combat, his fighter pilot brilliance gave him a powerful, irresistible magnetism.

By 1961, after leaving active duty, married, and now serving as a Marine Corps reservist, Cunningham earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles. “Without a college degree,” he later joked, “I wouldn’t have gotten very far.” He joined the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank, in California’s San Fernando Valley, spending his time working on equations used to guide submarine-launched ballistic missiles to their targets. Cunningham also began (but did not complete) a PhD focused on measuring the Earth’s changing magnetic field. Then his life took an unexpected turn.

One morning while driving to work, something on the radio caught his ear. He stopped his Porsche by the side of the road and listened. Two thousand miles away in Florida, a naval aviator named Alan Shepherd had just become the first American man in space.

Cunningham was addicted.

Cunningham’s Path to Apollo 7

The Apollo 7 crew, left to right: Command Module Pilot Don F. Eisele, Commander Walter M. Shira Jr. and Lunar Module Pilot Walter Cunningham. NASA

Always an avid athlete, gymnast and swimmer brimming with confidence, Cunningham took up running along the Santa Monica waterfront “because I read that’s what astronauts did.”

Cunningham continues his doctoral research and work at the RAND Corporation. But he also applied to join NASA’s third class of astronaut candidates. In the summer of 1963, he underwent intensive medical and psychological examinations. And in October of the same year, he was accepted into the third class of NASA astronauts, along with the future moonwalkers Buzz Aldrin, Dave Scottand Gene Cernan.

In September 1966, Cunningham and astronauts Wally Shira and Don Eisele were assigned to Apollo 2, a planned two-week mission that would orbit the Earth. But Apollo 2 would effectively duplicate the agenda of the planned Apollo 1 mission, which Shira didn’t like. For Shira, repeating a flight he had already flown made no sense – and offered little challenge.

By November, Apollo 2 had been canceled. Schirra, Eisele, and Cunningham were instead reassigned as backup crew for the Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. But they were given no assurance of a future mission of their own.

All that changed on the evening of January 27, 1967, when Grissom, White and Chaffee died in a fire which passed through their Apollo 1 capsule during a ground test.

Four months later, as the Apollo project was getting back on its feet, Shira, Eisele, and Cunningham were assigned to Apollo 7, the first manned mission to test the spacecraft that would one day take humans to the moon.

Apollo 7 brings the moon back into view of America

When Apollo 7’s giant Saturn IB rocket blasted into space at 11:02 a.m. EDT on October 11, 1968, the eyes of half a million spectators and 600 accredited journalists thronging the beaches and roads of Cape Kennedy were laser-focused on the fate of three men on board.

Cunningham’s first view of Earth from space revealed the vast, downward-pointing peak of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula filling his window, its tawny terrain contrasting vividly with the ethereal turquoise of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba.

“Here I am,” Cunningham later reflected in his memoirs All American boys (Macmillan, 1977), “seeing the globe as it really was”.

But there wasn’t much time for philosophizing, as the crew’s 11-day mission was packed with work: rendezvous with the spent Saturn IB upper stage, eight engine “burns” on their service modules, exhaustive tests of the spacecraft’s systems, and lots of photography of the Earth’s precious resources.

The Apollo 7 crew would even win a special Emmy Award for their eponymous “Wally, Walt and Don Show,” a series of television broadcasts “from the great room of Apollo, high above it all,” lead astronaut Dick Slayton later wrote in his autobiography Deek! (Macmillan, 1994). Cunningham and his fellow crew members showed young viewers their spacecraft, how they stay fit in space and how they cook food in weightlessness. In one hilarious moment, Cunningham made a thumb and forefinger ring, allowing Shira to throw a pen through it.

But living in the cramped quarters of Apollo brings challenges. Loud fans, windows covered in soot from rocket exhaust, and rotting food were soon overshadowed by dreaded colds. Runny noses, sneezing, and a stressful mission didn’t make for a good relationship with mission control.

After the successful completion of Apollo 7, Cunningham led the Skylab branch of the Astronaut Squad. But when it became abundantly clear that he would never fly again, he left NASA in June 1971. After leaving the space business, Cunningham published his memoirs and entered the worlds of technology, finance and keynote speaking.

“We would like to express our immense pride in the life he lived and our deep gratitude for the man he was – a patriot, explorer, pilot, astronaut, husband, brother and father,” the Cunningham family said in statement. “The world has lost another true hero and he will be sorely missed.”

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