Former NASA astronaut Walter Cunningham, who made the first test of the Apollo Command Module in Earth orbit, has died at the age of 90.
Cunningham’s death on Tuesday (will open in a new tab) (January 3) his family confirmed.
“We would like to express our great pride in the life he lived and our deep appreciation for the man he was – patriot, explorer, pilot, cosmonaut, husband, brother and father. The world has lost another true hero. and we will miss him greatly,” his family said in a statement released by NASA. (will open in a new tab).
Selected as part of NASA’s third group of astronauts in 1963, Walter Cunningham became the second civilian to fly into space when he launched the Apollo 7 mission on October 11, 1968. The 11-day flight that followed the loss of Apollo 1. of the crew in the launch pad fire a year earlier, served as a critical test for the redesigned command module before it could take astronauts to the moon.
Related: NASA’s Apollo Lunar Program in Pictures
(Image credit: NASA)
Takeoff with Mercury and Gemini veteran Walter “Wally” Schirra as mission commander and fellow rookie Donn Eisel. (will open in a new tab) As a command module pilot, Cunningham on Apollo 7 was the lunar module pilot, although there was no lunar lander. During the flight, Cunningham was responsible for all of the spacecraft’s systems except those related to launch and navigation.
“We’ve fixed a lot. [that were wrong with the Apollo 1 command module] and were able to fly a much better spacecraft,” Cunningham said in a 1999 oral history interview. (will open in a new tab) for NASA. “The one we flew was almost perfect! I mean, it was easy – you couldn’t have asked for better equipment for the first time.”
In addition to being the first NASA crew of three to fly into space, and the only crewed mission launched on a Saturn IB rocket. (will open in a new tab) from Complex 34 at what is today the Space Force station at Cape Canaveral in Florida, Apollo 7 was also the first American flight to broadcast a live feed from space. Right “from the beautiful Apollo room high above everything,” as was handwritten in the card shown at the beginning of the first broadcast, Schirra, Cunningham and Eizel gave the world below a glimpse of their spaceship and what it’s like to live in space. .
The Wally, Walt and Donn Show was a resounding success and earned Cunningham and his Apollo 7 crewmates a special Emmy award.
(Image credit: NASA)
However, the mission was not without difficulties. The astronauts found it difficult to sleep as one crew member had to be constantly awake and active, often disturbing the others. Schirra also developed a runny nose, adding to his frustration with Mission Control as more targets were added to an already stressful flight start.
“When Wally caught a cold, everyone was supposed to be unhappy – and there is no doubt that this can make you a little unhappy. But we’ve all been through it,” Cunningham said. “I think the real problem was that it was the first mission. We planned it for 11 days, but you don’t know how long it will last because something might happen and you have to come back. And even planners and engineers loaded most of the tasks at the beginning in case [we had] come back early.”
Ultimately, however, Apollo 7 was considered a success. (will open in a new tab)which gave NASA the confidence to send the next Apollo 8 mission to the moon.
“The mission was described as 101% successful and that’s because they added a couple of detailed test targets and stuff after we were there,” Cunningham said. “So we actually completed over 100% of the tasks.”
Cunningham’s first and only space flight ended on October 22, 1968, when he and his Apollo 7 teammates splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean 10 days, 20 hours, 9 minutes and 3 seconds after they left Earth.
Ronnie Walter Cunningham was born March 16, 1932 in Creston, Iowa. He joined the US Navy in 1951 and served on active duty as a US Marine Corps fighter pilot from 1953 to 1956, flying 54 sorties as a fighter pilot in Korea.
Cunningham received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from UCLA in 1960 and 1961, respectively. He completed all the requirements, except for his thesis, for a PhD in physics from UCLA while working for the RAND Corporation before joining NASA.
Before the tragedy of Apollo 1, Cunningham, Schirra and Eisele were first assigned to the second manned Apollo flight and then, after that mission was cancelled, as backups for the Apollo 1 crew. After the fire, in addition to training for Apollo 7, the three astronauts also closely monitored the changes being made to the command module to ensure that a similar disaster would not happen again.
Despite the success of the Apollo 7 mission, tensions between Schirra (and therefore the entire team) with working with Mission Control did not prevent any of the three astronauts from flying into space again. Cunningham ended his career at NASA as Chief of Flight Crew Control Skylab, overseeing the integration of equipment with the science experiments planned for the orbital workshop.
“I am proud that my contribution to the space program was really what I did in terms of working with systems [Apollo 7] on a spaceship, on this one and on Skylab,” Cunningham said. “Because a lot of people I know could fly like me, but not many people – I don’t believe – could do the same kind of astute thinking I did.”
Related: Facts About NASA’s Apollo Program
(Image credit: NASA)
Cunningham left NASA in 1971 and, after completing the Advanced Management program at Harvard Business School, became a businessman, investor, and director of a number of public and private companies. He hosted Rise to Logic, a radio talk show, and lectured frequently.
Cunningham is credited with starting a tradition of spaceflight that continues today. He took the initiative to mint medallions for the Apollo 7 crew that flew during the mission and then engraved the launch and landing dates after the flight. These mementos, now known as Robbins medallions after the company that made them, have been made for every NASA manned flight since then.
In 1977, Cunningham wrote All-American Boys, a candid “no limit” memoir that was widely praised for revealing the human side of the space program. In 1998, he was played by actor Fredrik Lehne in the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.
For his service in the national space program, Cunningham was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service and Distinguished Service Medals, among other awards. It was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame at the New Mexico Space History Museum in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1983; the US Astronaut Hall of Fame at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1997; and the International Air and Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air and Space Museum in California in 2011.
Cunningham was preceded by the death of his Apollo 7 crewmates. Eisele died in 1987, and Schirra died two decades later. (will open in a new tab) in 2007.
Cunningham is survived by his wife Dot, his sister Cathy Cunningham and his two children, Brian and Kimberly, from his former marriage to Lo Ella Irby.
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