Judging only by the number of astronauts who gathered together to pay tribute to Walt Cunningham on Tuesday (January 24), the capabilities of the late Apollo 7 pilot extended far beyond his launch into space in 1968.
Group participating in the panel discussion (will open in a new tab) before a more traditional memorial service at Houston’s First Baptist Church, two of Cunningham’s Apollo colleagues and four NASA veterans who had flown on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station—the latter long after Cunningham retired—were present. They all said they were grateful to Cunningham for their friendship.
“Fred and I were in the same group we called the Original 19 and of course we met all the astronauts when we first arrived and Walt was one of them,” Apollo 16 rover Charlie said. Duke, who along with Apollo 13 lunar module pilot Fred Hayes, joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1966, two years before Cunningham made his first and only flight.
“He was a great friend, a great mentor and a great NASA spokesperson over the years. We miss him so much,” Duke said.
Related: Walter Cunningham: Apollo 7 Astronaut
Cunningham died on 1 January. 3 (will open in a new tab) due to complications from the fall. He was 90.
The Apollo 7 mission went down in history in several ways. It was the first U.S. spaceflight with live TV coverage from space, and was the first time NASA had launched a three-man team (Cunningham’s teammates, Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele, predeceased him). But most importantly, the mission is “101% successful”. (will open in a new tab) served as the critical cruise flight for the Apollo Command Module, which was recycled after a fire claimed the lives of the Apollo 1 crew during launch pad testing.
“The first flight of the new spacecraft (will open in a new tab) is always a mission critical,” said George Abbey, who, as an engineer and then director, helped NASA land astronauts on the moon. “If you look at the contributions of Walt and his teammates to Apollo 7, that was really the key to allowing us to land on the Moon, which we did in July 1969. This would not have happened if this mission had not been successful.”
“I will always have memories of Walt and his crew on this flight,” Abby said.
(Image credit: First Baptist Church of Houston)
Bob Crippen did not fly into space until the first launch of the Space Shuttle in 1981, but after joining NASA from the canceled USAF manned orbital laboratory program in 1969, he worked with Cunningham on the Apollo Applications Program (AAP), which became Skylab’s orbital workshop.
One of the first tasks Cunningham gave Crippen was to test the waste collection system for the new space station.
“They want to do [the test] we have a weightlessness parabola on KS-135 [aircraft] at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Your task is to put “number two” on one parabola, which is about 30 seconds,” Crippen recalls, as Cunningham told him. “Being a rookie, you don’t turn down a job, and that’s why I said, ‘Yes, yes. sir, and went to Dayton, Ohio.”
“That morning I got up and had breakfast with lots of steak and eggs and I did the first parabola. I was happy to be back home and tell Walt, “Mission accomplished,” he said with a big smile.
“I was told that Walt wanted it to be fun and laughable,” said journalist Melissa Jacobs, moderator of the discussion.
Three other members of the group became astronauts after Cunningham left NASA to become a businessman.
“I first met Walt when I was in high school,” said Bernard Harris, who in 1995 became the first black astronaut to perform a spacewalk on the second of his two Space Shuttle flights. “It wasn’t until 20 or 30 years later that I really got to know Walt.”
“When I got out [of NASA] and decided that I was going into venture capital, I [thought] i could be the first [astronaut] to [do so]. Well, it turns out I wasn’t. Walt founded his venture capital firm in 1982. Then he became my mentor. So I owe him a lot.”
(Image credit: First Baptist Church of Houston)
Anna Fisher was one of the first six women to become NASA astronauts and the first mother to fly into space. Like Harris, she met Cunningham long after they both left the program.
“I wish I had the opportunity to work with him,” she said. “He looks like he would be a great boss, but I’m glad it’s better late than never that he befriends this amazing, very self-confident person who I really truly admired.”
As the only astronaut in the group still on active NASA missions, Randy Bresnik met Cunningham relatively recently, but drew parallels between Cunningham’s accomplishments and what the space agency is doing now.
“I like to think that Walt’s spirit certainly lives on, as we just had Artemis 1, the first uncrewed flight of the Artemis program. we did it with Apollo 7,” Bresnik said. “And we don’t just keep them in low Earth orbit, we send them to the moon and back. None of this would have been possible without pioneers like Walt.”
“So, God, Walt Cunningham,” he said.
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