NASA said that retired astronaut Walter Cunningham, the pilot of the first crewed flight in the Apollo program, died early Tuesday morning. He was 90 years old.
As a member of NASA’s third astronaut class, Cunningham was one of the first to participate in the human spaceflight program. He joined NASA in 1963. He was chosen to be the pilot of Apollo 7, the first crewed mission of the NASA program and the first time people set foot on the moon.
In a statement shared by NASA, the Cunningham family said, “We would like to express our immense pride in the life that he lived, and our deep gratitude for the man that he was — a patriot, an explorer, pilot, astronaut, husband, brother, and father,” “Another true hero has died, and we will miss him very much.”
The Apollo 7 mission took off in 1968 and lasted about 11 days. The crew went into orbit on what was a test flight to see if the Apollo capsule could meet up with another spacecraft in orbit. If it could do that, it would open the way for future missions to go deeper into space. NASA says it was also the first time Americans were shown on TV while in space.
Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele were also on the Apollo 7 crew, but Cunningham was the only one who still lived.
Cunningham was 36 years old when the Apollo 7 mission took off. He was born in Creston, Iowa. He got a bachelor’s degree in physics with honors and a master’s degree in physics with honors from the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1999, he talked to NASA’s Oral History Office about his career path and what drove him to do what he did.
“I’m one of those people who hasn’t looked back much. “No one asked me about that until I was an astronaut,” Cunningham said. “All I can remember is keeping my nose to the grindstone and trying to do the best I could. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was always trying to do my best because I wanted to be ready for the next step. I have always been looking ahead. I’m not stuck in the past.
Cunningham only went into space once, but he went on to lead NASA’s Skylab program. Skylab was the first U.S. space station that orbited Earth from 1973 to 1979.
According to his official NASA biography, Cunningham joined the US Navy in 1952 and started training as a pilot. He then served as a fighter pilot with the US Marine Corps on 54 missions in Korea.
In an interview with NASA’s Oral History Office, Cunningham said, “The only thing I remember doing specifically to become an astronaut was to become one of, if not the best, fighter pilots in the world.”
NASA says that Cunningham also got a Ph.D. in physics from UCLA, but he didn’t finish his thesis. Later, in 1974, he finished an advanced management program at the Harvard Graduate School of Business.
Walter Cunningham, the last surviving astronaut from the Apollo 7 mission, has died at the age of 90. His 1968 spaceflight with two other astronauts helped pave the way for the moon landing less than a year later. https://t.co/BVxjF3dCDF
— The Associated Press (@AP) January 3, 2023
Cunningham speaks about space exploration at a February 24, 2015 hearing of the US Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Before joining the astronaut corps, he worked as a physicist for the nonprofit Rand Corporation, a military think tank.
After leaving the space agency, Cunningham took on many jobs in the private sector. According to his NASA biography, he worked as an executive at a number of development companies, was a consultant for new businesses, started his own business and invested in other businesses. Eventually, he hosted a radio talk show.
In later years, Cunningham also became a vocal critic of the most common ideas about how humans affect climate change.
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