Last Apollo 7 Astronaut Dies at 90


Lunar module pilot Walt Cunningham performs flight tasks on the Apollo 7 mission in 1968. | Image by NASA

Walter Cunningham, the last surviving Apollo 7 astronaut, died early Tuesday morning in Houston at age 90.

Cunningham died from complications related to a fall, according to Legacy.com.

“Walt Cunningham was a fighter pilot, physicist, and an entrepreneur – but, above all, he was an explorer,” NASA  Administrator Bill Nelson said in a news release. “Walt and his crewmates made history, paving the way for the Artemis Generation we see today. NASA will always remember his contributions to our nation’s space program and sends our condolences to the Cunningham family.”

Cunningham was born on March 16, 1932, in Creston, Iowa, and graduated from Venice High School in Venice, California.

He joined the Navy in 1951 and became a fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps. Cunningham flew 54 missions in Korea. He remained in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1975, retiring with the rank of colonel.

Cunningham continued his education after leaving active duty, studying physics at UCLA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts with honors in physics in 1960 and a Master of Arts with distinction in physics in 1961.

He was employed as a scientist for the Rand Corporation, where he worked for three years on secret defense studies and problems related to the earth’s magnetosphere.

In 1963, Cunningham joined NASA, where he was subsequently selected to fly to outer space on the Apollo 7 mission, the first manned test flight of the Apollo spacecraft.

Apollo 7 lifted off on October 11, 1968. The crew, consisting of Cunningham and fellow astronauts Donn Eisele and Walter Schirra Jr., completed all planned tests, including starting the engine on the service module, measuring how well all of the spacecraft’s systems operated, exploring docking maneuvers, and making the first live TV broadcast from outer space.

The Apollo 7 crew received an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1963 for their daily television broadcasts of about 10 minutes showcasing the crew’s activities during the 11-day mission.

After the 263-hour, 4.5-million-mile flight, Apollo 7 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean on October 22, 1968.

“Five hundred years from now, there’s only going to be one thing that they remember about Apollo, and that’s that man landed on the moon,” Cunningham once said. “That’ll be it. And people have no idea how hard it was, for example, to get the first Apollo mission off. Apollo 7 was the fifth mission that Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and I worked on, and finally, we flew.”

After leaving NASA in 1971, Cunningham led several technical and financial groups, started some small businesses and private investment firms, and became a well-known radio talk show host and speaker at significant events.

Over his lifetime, Cunningham flew more than 4,500 hours in 40 different types of planes, including more than 3,400 hours in jet planes.

“On behalf of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, we are beholden to Walt’s service to our nation and dedication to the advancement of human space exploration,” said Vanessa Wyche, center director. “Walt’s accomplished legacy will continue to serve as an inspiration to us all.”

“I definitely believe that we lived in the good old days,” Cunningham said in an oral history interview in 1999. “We lived in the golden age of manned spaceflight. … The days through Apollo will be remembered; there’ll never be another time like that again. Even when we go to Mars, it will be different. And I feel just fortunate that I was a small part of this particular time in spaceflight.”

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