Walter Cunningham, the last surviving Apollo 7 astronaut, dies at the age of 90

On October 11, 1968, three men boarded NASA’s Saturn IB and had what the agency described as a “perfect start” into space for the first manned Apollo mission. On Tuesday, Walter Cunningham – the last living astronaut on that mission who helped pave the way for humans to walk on the moon – died in Houston.

NASA announced the death of 90-year-old Cunningham on Tuesday. In a statement to NASA, Cunningham’s family did not confirm the cause of his death.

“We would like to express our immense pride in the life he led and our deep gratitude for the man he was – a patriot, explorer, pilot, astronaut, husband, brother and father,” his family said. “The world has lost another true hero and we will miss him greatly.”

NASA said that, in addition to being a fighter pilot, physicist and entrepreneur, he was primarily an “explorer”.

“On Apollo 7, the first launch of a manned Apollo mission, Walt and his crewmates made history by paving the way for the Artemis generation we see today,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “NASA will always remember his contributions to our country’s space program and sends its condolences to the Cunningham family.”

Apollo 7 astronauts Walter Cunningham (L), command module pilot;  Walter M. Schirra, Jr.  (C), the commander, and Donn Eisele, lunar module pilot, stop in front of their spacecraft after a satisfactory test in the crew compartment at North American Rockwell's Space Division.  / Source: Bettmann/Getty

Apollo 7 astronauts Walter Cunningham (L), command module pilot; Walter M. Schirra, Jr. (C), the commander, and Donn Eisele, lunar module pilot, stop in front of their spacecraft after a satisfactory test in the crew compartment at North American Rockwell’s Space Division. / Source: Bettmann/Getty

After graduating from high school in California, Cunningham joined the U.S. Navy in 1951, where he served as a night fighter pilot in Korea. From there, he began studying physics, earning a master’s degree with honors in physics in 1961.

Two years later, NASA made him an astronaut.

One of his first meetings, however, ended in tragedy. He, along with Walter Schirra and Donn Eisele, were backup crew members on the 1967 Apollo 1 mission when a flash fire occurred during a launch pad test. The incident resulted in the deaths of three other astronauts.

A year later, these three backup crew members made history by becoming the first human test flight of an Apollo spacecraft. They stayed in space for 11 days, covering 4.5 million miles, with Cunningham serving as their lunar module pilot. The mission also provided the first live television coverage of on-board activities in space.

Following this mission, Cunningham became head of the Skylab branch of the Air Crew Directorate, during which time he helped manage major manned space hardware, launch vehicles, and dozens of experiments. He left the agency in 1971, NASA reported, and earned a PhD in physics except for his thesis in 1974.

The Apollo 7 mission was a significant step in the historic space venture that would take place just months later in July 1969. It was then that Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first to step on the moon, uttering his famous words: he descended the ladder: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Soon after, Buzz Aldrin joined him on the lunar surface, describing it as a “magnificent desolation”.

Aldrin paid tribute to Cunningham after learning of his death on Tuesday, saying he had “lost a good friend”.

“America and Apollo 11 wouldn’t have gotten to the moon without Walt’s courage and the Apollo 7 flight. Their mission made every other Apollo mission possible,” Aldrin said. “He is the definition of an American hero, a man with a huge heart. Godspeed Walt.

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