Last surviving astronaut of Apollo 7 mission Walter Cunningham dies

He was also a physicist and a night fighter pilot.
Ameya Paleja
Walter Cunningham during the Apollo 7 mission
Walter Cunningham during the Apollo 7 mission

NASA 

Walter Cunningham, NASA astronaut who flew on Apollo 7, an 11-day mission manned mission in 1968 that paved the way for the first human landing on the Moon, has died at the age of 90, NASA said on its website. Cunningham died of natural causes at a hospital in Houston on Tuesday.

Born in 1932, Walter Cunningham joined the U.S. Navy in 1951, where he served in the U.S. Marine Corps and flew 54 missions as a night fighter pilot In Korea before retiring at the rank of a colonel. He then graduated with Honors in Physics in 1960 and followed it up with a distinction in Physics a year later at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Life as an astronaut

In 1963, Cunningham was selected as an astronaut for NASA's third class of spacemen and was assigned as prime crew for Apollo 2 until it was canceled. He was also the backup lunar module pilot for the Apollo 1 mission.

Cunningham's moment of glory arrived when he was designated as the lunar module pilot for the 11-day flight of Apollo 7, the first human flight test of the Apollo program. Launched on October 11, 1968, the mission with Walter M. Schirra, Jr. and Donn F. Eisele onboard, tested maneuvers necessary for docking and lunar orbit rendezvous using the third stage of Saturn IB launch vehicle, NASA said on its website.

Following the successful completion of eight tests, including igniting the service module engine and measuring the performance accuracy of all spacecraft systems, the crew splashed in the Atlantic Ocean after a 263-hour mission that flew 4.5 million miles. Just a year later, the mission paved the way for the Moon landing by Apollo 11.

The crew is also remembered for providing the first live television broadcast of onboard activities for which they received an Emmy.

Post-retirement life

Following his mission, Cunningham was chief of the Skylab branch of the Flight Crew Directorate. NASA added that he provided operational inputs for five major pieces of space hardware, two launch vehicles, and 56 major experiments under the Skylab program.

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Cunningham retired from NASA in 1971 and led multiple technical and financial organizations such as Century Development Corp., Hydrotech Development Company, and 3D International. In 1974, he completed a doctorate in physics at the Harvard Graduate School of Business, where he did not have to submit a thesis as part of the Advanced Management Program.

He also worked as a scientist for Rand, where he worked on classified defense studies and problems related to the Earth's magnetosphere. Over his lifetime, Cunningham had accumulated over 4,500 hours of flying time in 40 different aircraft.

“Walt Cunningham was a fighter pilot, physicist, and an entrepreneur – but, above all, he was an explorer, said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on its website. "On Apollo 7, the first launch of a crewed Apollo mission, Walt and his crewmates made history, paving the way for the Artemis Generation we see today.”