Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham dies at 90

Walter Cunningham, the last survivor of the first successful manned space mission in 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 Cunningham died on Tuesday, but did not specify his whereabouts or cause of death.

Cunningham was one of three astronauts on the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, an 11-day spaceflight sending live television broadcasts in Earth orbit, paving the way for a moon landing less than a year later.

A civilian at the time, Cunningham served on the mission alongside Navy Captain Walter M. Schirra and Donn F. Eisele, an Air Force major. Cunningham was a lunar module pilot on the spaceflight that launched from Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida on October 11 and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda.

NASA said Cunningham, Eisele, and Schirra flew a near-perfect mission. The spacecraft performed so well that the agency sent the next crewed, Apollo 8, into lunar orbit in July 1969 as the start of Apollo 11’s moon landing.

The Apollo 7 astronauts also won a special Emmy for their daily television reporting from orbit, buffooning around, posting witty signs and educating earthlings about spaceflight.

This was NASA’s first crewed space mission since the death of three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch pad fire on January 27, 1967.

Cunningham recalled Apollo 7 during an event at Kennedy Space Center in 2017 and said, “It allowed us to overcome all the obstacles that stood in our way after the Apollo 1 fire, and it was the longest, most successful test flight of any flying machine ever.”

Cunningham was born in Creston, Iowa and attended high school in California before joining the Navy in 1951 and serving as the Marine Corps. According to NASA, he is a pilot in Korea. He later earned BS and MS degrees in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also completed PhD studies and worked as a scientist at the Rand Corporation before joining NASA.

In an interview the year before his death, Cunningham recalled growing up poor and dreaming of flying airplanes instead of spacecraft.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t even know there were astronauts,” Cunningham told The Spokesman-Review.

After NASA, Cunningham continued to work in engineering, business and investment, and became a speaker and radio host. He wrote a memoir, “The All-American Boys,” about his career and time as an astronaut.

Although Cunningham never took part in any other space missions after Apollo 7, he remained an advocate of space exploration. He told the Spokane newspaper in Washington last year: “I think humans need to keep expanding and pushing the levels at which they survive in space.”

Cunningham is survived by his wife, sister Cathy Cunningham, and their children Brian and Kimberly.

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