Walter Cunningham: The last surviving Apollo 7 astronaut has died


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Walter Cunningham, a retired NASA astronaut and pilot of the first manned flight in the space agency’s famed Apollo program, died early Tuesday morning at the age of 90, NASA said.

Cunningham was one of the early members of NASA’s human spaceflight program as a member of the third class of astronauts, joining the space agency in 1963. He was chosen to pilot Apollo 7, the NASA program’s first manned mission, which resulted in the landing of humans on the Moon for the first time.

“We want to express our immense pride in the life he led and our deep gratitude for the man he was – a patriot, an explorer, pilot, astronaut, husband, brother and father,” the family wrote Cunningham in a statement from NASA. “The world has lost another true hero and we will miss him dearly.”

The Apollo 7 mission launched in 1968 and lasted approximately 11 days. It sent the crew on a journey into orbit that amounted to a test flight that could demonstrate the Apollo capsule’s ability to rendezvous with another spacecraft in orbit, paving the way for future deeper exploration of space. It was also notable for being featured in the first live TV broadcast by Americans from space, according to NASA.

Cunningham was the last surviving member of the Apollo 7 crew, which included astronauts Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele.

Born in Creston, Iowa, Cunningham received an honors bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree with honors in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles. Cunningham was 36 years old when the Apollo 7 mission launched. During an interview with NASA’s Oral History Office in 1999, he reflected on his career path and motivations.

“I’m one of those people who’ve never really looked back. I only remember when someone asked me after I became an astronaut,” Cunningham said. “All I remember is keeping my nose to the whetstone and wanting to do my best when — I didn’t realize that at the time, but it was because I always wanted to be better prepared for the next step. I’ve always looked to the future. I don’t live in the past.”

Although he only ventured into space once, Cunningham later became a leader in NASA’s Skylab program, the United States’ first space station, which orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979.

Before joining NASA, Cunningham enlisted in the US Navy and, according to his official NASA biography, began training to be a pilot in 1952. He served as a US Marine Corps fighter pilot on 54 missions in Korea.

“The only thing I can ever remember was specifically becoming an astronaut, because I looked at it, I had become one of, if not the best, fighter pilot in the world,” Cunningham said in the interview with the Oral History Office of NASA.

Cunningham also received his doctorate in physics from UCLA without completing a thesis, and later, in 1974, he completed an advanced management program at the Harvard Graduate School of Business, according to NASA.

Before joining the Astronaut Corps, he worked as a physicist for the Rand Corporation, a non-profit military think tank.

After leaving the space agency, Cunningham held many responsibilities and held various roles in the private sector. According to his NASA bio, he has held a variety of leadership positions at development companies, worked as a consultant for start-ups, became an entrepreneur and investor, and eventually became a radio talk show host.

In later years, Cunningham also became an outspoken critic of prevailing ideas about the effects of climate change on humanity.

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