Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham has died at the age of 90

Walter Cunningham, the last living astronaut from the first successful crewed space mission in the NASA Apollo program, died Tuesday in Houston. He was 90 years old.

NASA confirmed Cunningham’s death in a statement but gave no cause. His family said through spokesman Jeff Carr that Cunningham “died in hospital of natural causes.”

Cunningham was one of three astronauts aboard the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, an 11-day spaceflight that broadcast live television as it orbited the Earth, paving the way for the moon landing less than a year later.

Cunningham, then a civilian, manned the mission with Navy Captain Walter M. Schirra and Donn F. Eisele, an Air Force Major. Cunningham was the lunar module pilot on the spaceflight that launched from Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida on October 11 and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda.

NASA said Cunningham, Eisele and Schirra performed a nearly perfect mission. Their spacecraft performed so well that the agency sent the next crew, Apollo 8, into lunar orbit as a prelude to the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson said Tuesday that Cunningham was “first and foremost” an explorer whose work also laid the foundation for Artemis’ new lunar program.

The Apollo 7 astronauts also won a special Emmy Award for their daily television coverage from orbit, during which they goofed off, held up funny signboards, and educated Earthlings about spaceflight.

It was NASA’s first manned space mission since the deaths of three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch pad fire on January 27, 1967.

Cunningham recalled Apollo 7 at an event at the Kennedy Space Center in 2017, saying that it “allowed us to overcome all the obstacles we had after the Apollo 1 fire and became the longest and most successful test flight of any flying machine.”

Cunningham was born in Creston, Iowa, and attended high school in California before joining the Navy in 1951 and serving as a Marine. pilot in Korea, according to NASA. He later earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also did his doctoral studies, and worked as a scientist for the Rand Corporation before joining NASA.

In an interview a year before his death, Cunningham recalled growing up poor and dreaming of flying airplanes rather than spaceships.

“Growing up, we didn’t even know astronauts existed,” Cunningham told The Spokesman-Review.

After retiring from NASA in 1971, Cunningham worked in engineering, business and investment, and became a public speaker and radio host. He wrote a memoir about his career and time as an astronaut, “The All-American Boys”. In later years, he also expressed skepticism about the contribution of human activity to climate change, challenging the scientific consensus in writing and in public conversations, while admitting that he was not a climatologist.

Although Cunningham never crewed another space mission after Apollo 7, he remained a proponent of space exploration. He told the Spokane, Washington newspaper last year, “I think humans need to continue to evolve and push the levels at which they survive in space.”

Cunningham is survived by his wife Dorothy, sister Cathy Cunningham, and children Brian and Kimberly. In a statement, Cunningham’s family said “the world has lost another true hero and he will be greatly missed.”

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