Walter Cunningham, the last surviving astronaut of the first successful manned space mission in NASA’s Apollo program, died Tuesday in Houston. He was 90.
NASA confirmed Cunningham’s death in a sentence but did not include its cause. His family said through a spokesman, Jeff Carr, that Cunningham died at a hospital «from complications of a fall, after a full and complete life.»
Cunningham was one of three astronauts aboard the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, an 11-day space flight that broadcast live television broadcasts as they orbited Earth, paving the way for the moon landing less than a year later.
Cunningham, then a civilian, crewed the mission with Navy Capt. Walter M. Schirra and Donn F. Eisele, an Air Force Major. Cunningham was the lunar module pilot on the space flight, which launched from Cape Kennedy Air Force Station, Florida, on Oct. 11 and touched down in the Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda.
NASA said Cunningham, Eisele and Schirra flew a nearly perfect mission. Their spacecraft performed so well that the agency sent the next crew, Apollo 8, to orbit the moon 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 the agency’s new Artemis lunar program.
The Apollo 7 astronauts also won a special Emmy Award for their daily television reporting from orbit, during which they clowned around, displayed humorous posters and educated Earthlings about space flight.
It was NASA’s first manned space mission since the deaths of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch pad fire on January 27, 1967.
Cunningham recalled Apollo 7 during a 2017 event at the Kennedy Space Center, saying 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 enlisting in the Navy in 1951 and serving in the Marine Corps. pilot in Korea, according to NASA. He later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also completed doctoral studies, and worked as a scientist for the Rand Corporation before joining NASA.
In an interview the year before his death, Cunningham recalled growing up poor and dreaming of flying planes, not spaceships.
“We didn’t even know there were astronauts when I was a kid,” Cunningham said. The Speaker-Review.
After retiring from NASA in 1971, Cunningham worked in engineering, business, and investment, becoming a public speaker and radio host. He wrote a memoir about his career and his time as an astronaut, «The All-American Boys.» He, too, expressed skepticism in his later years about the contribution of human activity to climate change, challenging the scientific consensus in writings and public speaking, though he acknowledged that he was not a climate scientist.
Although Cunningham never flew another space mission after Apollo 7, he remained an advocate of space exploration. He told the Spokane, Washington, newspaper last year: «I think humans need to continue to expand and push the levels at which they’re surviving in space.»
Cunningham is survived by his wife Dot, his sister Cathy Cunningham, and their children Brian and Kimberly. In a statement, Cunningham’s family said: «The world has lost another true hero, and he will be sorely missed.»