Walter Cunningham, the last surviving astronaut from the first successful crewed space mission of NASA’s Apollo program, has died. He was 90 years old.
NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs confirmed Cunningham’s death to The Associated Press but did not immediately provide further details. Cunningham’s wife, Dot Cunningham, said in a statement that he died on Tuesday, but did not say where or give the cause of death.
Cunningham was one of three astronauts aboard the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, an 11-day spaceflight that broadcast live television broadcasts as they circled the Earth, paving the way for the moon landing less than a year later.
Cunningham, then a civilian, was part of the mission crew along with Navy Captain Walter M. Schirra and Donn F. Eisele, an Air Force major. Cunningham was the pilot of the spaceflight’s lunar module, which launched from Cape Kennedy Air Force Base, Florida on October 11 and crashed in the Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda.
NASA said Cunningham, Eisele and Schirra ‘performed a near-perfect mission. Their spacecraft performed so well that the agency sent the next crew, Apollo 8, into orbit around the moon in preparation for the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.
The Apollo 7 astronauts also won a special Emmy Award for their daily television reporting from orbit, during which they clowned around, held up humorous signs and educated earthlings about spaceflight.
It was NASA’s first crewed space mission since the death of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a fire on the launch pad on January 27, 1967.
Cunningham recalled Apollo 7 at a 2017 event at Kennedy Space Center, saying it “brought us over all the hurdles we had after the Apollo 1 fire and became the flight of longest and most successful trial 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 went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also did 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 in poverty and dreaming of flying airplanes, not spaceships.
“We didn’t even know there were astronauts when I was growing up,” Cunningham told The Spokesman-Review.
After NASA, Cunningham worked in engineering, business and investment, and became a lecturer and radio host. He wrote a memoir about his career and his career as an astronaut, “The All-American Boys”.
Although Cunningham never participated in another space mission after Apollo 7, he remained a supporter of space exploration. He told the Spokane, Washington, newspaper last year, “I think humans need to continue to develop and push the levels at which they survive in space.”
Cunningham is survived by his wife, sister Cathy Cunningham and children Brian and Kimberly.