The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced the passing of Walter Cunningham, the former American astronaut. He had been a part of the Apollo 7 mission in 1968, the first crewed mission of the Apollo program, and was a precursor to the first-ever human landing on the moon nine months later. Cunningham was 90 years old.

“We carried the nation’s hope with us,” Cunningham wrote in his memoir, “The All-American Boys” (1977). 

“Twenty-one months before, a fire on the very pad from which we launched had killed three of our teammates. One more setback now, and the prospects of landing a man on the moon before 1970 would be gone forever.”

“The task wasn’t only technical,” he added. “We also had to address any psychological barriers that still remained.”

Cunningham was assigned as the lunar module operator for the flight of Apollo 7, even though the spacecraft was not equipped for a moon landing. He was in charge of all the ship’s components, including launch and navigation.

Cunningham was part of a three-person team that included Walter Schirra and Donn Eisele and had an 11-day mission at a lower altitude of the Earth’s atmosphere. This was the first attempt at a human-crewed flight of the Apollo spacecraft, which was going to be used for sending a dozen astronauts to the moon from 1969 to 1972.

Following the passing of the original “Mercury Seven” astronaut and Apollo 7 mission commander Schirra in 2007 and command module pilot Eisele in 1987, he was the sole remaining crew member of the mission.

Cunningham was assigned to be the lunar module pilot for the flight of Apollo 7, although it had no lunar module, and he was responsible for all the operations of the spacecraft, apart from the launching and navigation.

“He was the second civilian in space, after Neil Armstrong, who had flown in the Gemini program and later became the first man to walk on the moon.”

His Brave Apollo Mission

On October 11, 1968, Apollo 7 took off from Earth, signifying the return of NASA’s lunar mission after the tragedy of the Apollo 1 crew – consisting of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – in late January 1967, when a fire broke out during a pre-launch practice.

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Before he was appointed to Apollo 7, Cunningham was the alternate lunar module pilot for the unfortunate Apollo 1 mission, and he was part of the main crew for Apollo 2 until it was called off.

Apollo 7 made history when it became the first mission to broadcast the crew’s activities live on television. 

Additionally, the astronauts encountered some difficulties during the mission, as they had colds and frequently expressed their displeasure with the mission directors.

Tensions between the three astronauts led to them never venturing into space again, even though Schirra had already declared his intention to retire after completing two missions for NASA.

Despite this, the mission was deemed to be a success from a technical standpoint, verifying the dependability and soundness of the systems that propelled Apollo 11 to the moon in July 1969, which allowed Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to make their significant first steps on the moon’s surface.

Cunningham had a long career with the United States Navy and Marine Corps, having flown 54 combat missions prior to his retirement as a colonel. NASA selected him in 1963 to be part of their third astronaut cohort.

After completing his military duties, Cunningham served at NASA for some time, followed by three years with the Rand Corporation as a scientist. His work at the Rand Corporation included doing classified studies in the area of defense and researching the Earth’s magnetic field.

Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator, stated in a statement announcing Walt Cunningham’s passing that he was a combat pilot, scientist, and businessperson, but most of all, an adventurer.

After Apollo 7, Cunningham was put in charge of the Skylab branch of NASA’s flight crew directorate, a program focused on creating an early space station. Cunningham retired from NASA in 1971.

After retiring from NASA, he pursued a career as an investor and corporate leader in multiple business endeavors and became a popular keynote speaker and the host of his radio show.