The last surviving astronaut of Apollo 7, NASA’s first successful manned space mission, died early Tuesday morning in Houston.
NASA, in a press release, confirmed the death of 90-year-old Walter Cunningham, who was part of the 1968 spaceflight that spanned 11 days and orbited the Earth. The highly televised space adventure helped lead to the moon landing less than a year later.
“Walt Cunningham was a fighter pilot, physicist, and an entrepreneur – but, above all, he was an explorer,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement.
“On Apollo 7, the first launch of a crewed Apollo mission, 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.”
His family said through a spokesperson Cunningham died in the hospital “from complications of a fall, after a full and complete life.”
His family, in a statement through NASA, expressed their “immense pride” in the life Cunningham led.
“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,” his family stated. “The world has lost another true hero, and we will miss him dearly.”
Cunningham was joined on the Apollo 7 mission by Navy Capt. Walter Schirra and Donn Eisele, who was an Air Force major. Cunningham, then a civilian, was the lunar module pilot on the space flight.
The mission, which launched in Florida and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda, was considered a nearly perfect flight by space officials.
The space agency then sent another crew, Apollo 8, to orbit the moon before Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July 1969.
The Apollo 7 crew would entertain television viewers during daily reports from orbit, including educating the masses on space travel while also clowning around and holding up funny signs. The daily TV appearances were enough to earn them a special Emmy award.
It was the first human crew since three astronauts were killed on Apollo 1 in a launch pad fire in 1967.
Cunningham, born in Iowa, joined the Navy in 1951 and then served on active duty with the US Marine Corps. before he retired with the rank of colonel. He was part of more than 50 missions as a night fighter pilot in Korea.
He worked on classified defense studies as a scientist for Rand Corporation for three years before he was picked to be among NASA’s third astronaut class in 1963.
In an interview a year before his death, Cunningham said he dreamt of flying aircrafts – not spacecraft – growing up poor.
“We never even knew that there were astronauts when I was growing up,” Cunningham told The Spokesman-Review.
After Apollo 7, he never manned another space mission, but remained an advocate for space exploration.
“I think that humans need to continue expanding and pushing out the levels at which they’re surviving in space,” he told the newspaper.
After he retired from NASA in 1971, he worked in engineering, business and investing while also doing public speaking and radio show gigs. He penned a memoir called “The All-American Boys” about his career and time as an astronaut.
He is survived by his wife, sister and children.
With Post wires