Walt Cunningham, who died at the age of 90, was an American astronaut and physicist who flew into space on the first manned Apollo flight. His mission revived the lunar landing program after a catastrophic fire in a faulty capsule killed three astronauts on the launch pad.
In January 1967, Cunningham, his commander Wally Schirra, and crew member Donn Eisele trained for the unglamorous Apollo 2 mission, largely a repeat of the first. The first seat for Apollo 1’s inaugural flight was assigned to the more experienced team of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who were in their capsule atop the rocket, dealing with repeated equipment failures during the countdown test.
Sudden screams over the radio link announced a fire that flared up terrifyingly in the pure oxygen atmosphere, destroying the interior of the cabin and melting the suits. The men suffocated in desperate attempts to open the hatch.
After the shock wore off and massive efforts to redesign the Apollo capsule began, Cunningham and his colleagues were quietly transferred to the new mission, which became Apollo 7 after several uncrewed test flights.
In October 1968, Apollo 7 launched from the same launch pad and on the same black-and-white rocket that their colleagues had died atop, in a brand new capsule with a non-combustible interior. Flight Director Glynn Lunney supervised their ascent from Mission Control in Houston, and 10 minutes later Apollo 7 smoothly entered orbit at 17,400 mph, 142 miles above the Earth.
They embarked on an ambitious 11-day flight that was intended to mimic the duration in space required for the first moon landing the following year. It was and remains the longest inaugural test flight of any spacecraft ever attempted. In this one flight, they accumulated more man-days in orbit than all Russian spaceflights to date.
They conducted many experiments, including an extensive color photograph of the Earth and a thorough shake-up of the new Apollo spacecraft. After separating from the rocket, they turned around and approached the empty stage, simulating the lunar lander recovery maneuver that would be necessary to make the first lunar landing nine months later.
However, it was this last-minute addition of a black-and-white television camera that caught the public’s imagination. Where previous smaller spacecraft crews had to sit in their cramped seats, the Apollo was remarkably spacious by comparison.
Seven live television programs, broadcast around the world, brought viewers on Earth closer to the fascinating novelty of weightlessness. The crew ate from floating jars, drank water balls, and playfully twirled objects in the air. In astounding antics, Cunningham swam past the camera, spun around, and flipped upside down. It was the most memorable TV show of the year and won an Emmy Award.
But as the flight progressed, Schirra contracted a severe cold that became uncomfortable in the absence of gravity to drain blocked nasal passages. The commander told Mission Control that the entire crew was sick, canceled some assignments, and declined various requests for new tests. Cunningham later insisted that he never caught it and that “when Wally had a cold, everyone had a cold.”
They were soon branded as a cantankerous crew who were sick in space. Unable to blow his nose in his space helmet, Schirra violated safety protocol and ordered the crew to return to Earth without them – meaning depressurization of the cabin during re-entry would have been fatal.
These disputes did not matter to Schirra, who announced his intention to retire after the flight. But disobedience infuriated NASA leadership and ruined the careers of Cunningham and Eisele, who never flew again. Meanwhile, Schirra filmed television commercials for the cold remedy Actifed.
Apollo 7 became the only crew not to be awarded NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, an obvious punishment for Schirra’s cavalier approach to power. The omission was corrected on the flight’s 40th anniversary in 2008, but by then only Cunningham was alive to claim it in person.
Ronnie Walter Cunningham was born on March 16, 1932 in Creston, Iowa. His father Walter later took the family to Venice, California. Young Walt was the eldest of five children and went on to earn two degrees in physics from UCLA. Ambition pushed him to lift himself out of poverty and, as he put it, “the vehicle was the plane.”
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1951 and learned to fly, then served in Korea as a Marine Corps pilot. He became a scientist at the RAND Corporation and then joined NASA in 1963 as part of the third astronaut recruitment, along with such future luminaries as Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Gene Cernan.
After Apollo 7, Cunningham worked on the Skylab space station, but was passed over as commander and left NASA in 1971. He joined the private sector as a businessman and investor. His book, The All-American Boys (1977), is widely regarded as one of the most candid and penetrating accounts of an astronaut’s life.
Walt Cunningham married Lo Ella Irby, with whom he had a daughter and a son. He later remarried Dorothy Cunningham, who survived him.
Walt Cunningham, born March 16, 1932, died January 3, 2022