On January 3, 2023, American astronaut Walter Cunningham passed away at the age of 90 after a full and complete life. While he may not be a common household name today, he is an integral part of American history, specifically for his contributions to space exploration. NASA claims that Cunningham was “instrumental to our moon landing’s program success.”
Cunningham was the last surviving astronaut of the Apollo 7 mission, the first NASA mission to ever broadcast live from orbit. Along with the rest of his crew, he advanced NASA’s goals of getting the first man on the moon just months after completing his successful Apollo 7 mission, an honor that went to Neil Armstrong in 1969.
You’ve come to the right place if you’re curious about Walter Cunningham’s accomplishments. In this article, you’ll learn everything there is to know about this great astronaut, including his education, his experience during Apollo 7, and how he lived the remainder of his life after the earth-shattering mission.
Who Was Walter Cunningham
Walter Cunningham was best known as an American astronaut but wore many hats. Walter was also a fighter pilot, a physicist, and an entrepreneur.
Born on March 16, 1932, in Creston, Iowa, Cunningham grew up poor but always had his eyes set on science. Although he always stated that he didn’t know astronauts existed when he was a little boy, he didn’t let his upbringing stop him from living his dreams.
In terms of education, he received a Bachelor of Arts with honors in physics in 1960 and a Master of Arts with distinction in physics in 1961 from the University of California before completing a doctorate in physics at Harvard Graduate School of Business in 1974.
Before his educational achievements, however, he joined the Navy in 1951 and served on active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps, eventually retiring as a colonel.
He flew several missions as a fighter pilot in Korea and accumulated thousands of hours of flying time. While gaining this experience as a pilot, little did he know he would soon push the limits of the Earth’s atmosphere.
After completing his Master of Arts, while working as a civilian, he was selected as an astronaut by NASA to be part of the crew of the first successful manned spaceflight in the Apollo program. Let’s talk about his experience at NASA that led to him manning the Apollo 7 mission.
Walter Cunningham and Apollo 7 Mission
Before being assigned to the Apollo 7 crew, NASA gave Walt Cunningham a few different projects. He was on the prime crew for Apollo 2 until it was canceled and on the backup lunar module pilot for Apollo 1, which unfortunately never took off as a fire killed the crew during a rehearsal test.
Eventually, Cunningham was selected and placed on the 11-day Apollo 7 mission, having been designated the lunar module pilot. The remainder of the crew consisted of Navy Captain Walter M. Schirra, Jr. and Air Force Major Donn F. Eisele. A lot was riding on the Apollo 7 mission. This was the first successful crewed space mission since January 27, 1967, when three Apollo 1 astronauts died in a launch pad fire.
Apollo 7 launched from Cape Kennedy Air Force Station, Florida, on October 11, 1968, and was the first human flight test for the Apollo spacecraft. The crew was tasked with testing necessary maneuvers for docking and lunar orbit rendezvous, which would be crucial for the future televised Apollo 11 mission.
The crew completed eight tests that achieved accurate performance and provided the first live television transmission of onboard crew activities. NASA applauded the crew for a near-perfect mission, which allowed them to move forward with future missions more quickly than anticipated. Cunningham and his crew safely arrived home on October 22, 1968, and marked their place in history.
Donn Eisele passed away in 1987, while Walter Schirra passed away in 2007, which until recently left Walter Cunningham as the last surviving astronaut of the mission. Cunningham continued to several other roles after Apollo 7. Let’s take a look at what they are.
Walter Cunningham’s Life After Apollo 7
Although he never crewed another space mission, Walter Cunningham advocated for space exploration and continued to work for NASA after the Apollo 7 mission. He became chief of the Skylab branch of the Flight Crew Directorate. He was responsible for the operational inputs for various manned space hardware, launch vehicles, and 56 major experiments that formed part of the Skylab Program.
After his stint with the Skylab Branch, Cunningham retired from NASA in 1971. However, this was far from the end of his professional career. He became a public speaker and radio host, in addition to leading roles at multiple tech and finance organizations. He also dabbled in investment and entrepreneurship.
Cunningham later wrote a memoir about his life as an astronaut titled The All-American Boys. In his later years, he vocally expressed skepticism about the science behind climate change, specifically human activity’s role in the phenomenon. He always made sure to state that he was not a climate scientist.
What’s more, for the many achievements in his life, including the Apollo 7 mission, Cunningham was the recipient of many awards. These awards include the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and NASA Distinguished Service Medal. He was also inducted into several Halls of Fame, including the Astronaut Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame.
Cunningham even has an Emmy Award. He and the rest of the Apollo 7 crew won a special Emmy Award for their daily television reports from orbit, which were humorous and educational for audiences back on Earth.
Wrap-Up: Walter Cunningham’s Legacy
Walter Cunningham played a pivotal role in the space race, as it was Apollo 7 that paved the way for the historic Apollo 11 mission less than a year later. He remained dedicated to science his entire life as an advocate and an educator. He will not be forgotten for his contributions to space exploration and the advancement of human discovery.
Cunningham is survived by his wife, sister, and children, who all remember him as a true hero for their family and the rest of America.