On October 11, 1968, the three men boarded NASA’s Saturn IB and made what the agency describes as a “perfect launch” into space on the first crewed Apollo mission. On Tuesday, Walter Cunningham, the last astronaut to survive that mission and help pave the way for humans to walk on the moon, died in Houston.
NASA announced the death of 90-year-old Cunningham on Tuesday. Cunningham’s family did not confirm the cause of death, in a statement to NASA.
His family said, “We want to express our immense pride in the life he lived and our deep gratitude for the man he was a patriot, explorer, pilot, astronaut, husband, brother and father.” said. “The world has lost another true hero and we will miss him terribly.”
NASA said he was first and foremost “an explorer,” in addition to being a fighter pilot, physicist, and entrepreneur.
“On Apollo 7, the first launch of a crewed Apollo mission, Walt and his teammates made history and paved 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 will extend our condolences to the Cunningham family.”
After graduating from high school in California, Cunningham joined the US Navy in 1951, where he served as a night fighter pilot in Korea. From there he continued to study physics, earning his Master of Arts degree in physics in 1961 with honors.
Two years later NASA made him an astronaut.
However, one of their first encounters ended in tragedy. He, along with Walter Schirra and Donn Eisele, were backup crew members on the Apollo 1 mission in 1967 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 as the first manned test flight of the Apollo spacecraft. They spent 11 days in space, covering 4.5 million miles with Cunningham serving as the lunar module pilot. The mission also provided the first live TV broadcast of space-based activities.
NASA said he was chief of the Skylab branch of the Flight Crew Directorate after that mission, helping manage large chunks of manned space equipment, launch vehicles, and dozens of experiments during that time. NASA said he retired from the agency in 1971 and went on to earn his doctorate in physics apart from his 1974 dissertation.
The Apollo 7 mission was an important step in the history-making space adventure that took place just months later, in July 1969. At that time, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong “” descended the ladder: “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Buzz Aldrin joined him on the lunar surface soon after, describing it as “a marvelous desolation”.
Aldrin paid tribute to Cunningham, saying he had “lost a good friend” after learning of his death on Tuesday.
“America and Apollo 11 would not have reached the moon without Walt’s courage and the Apollo 7 flight. Their mission made all other Apollo missions possible,” said Aldrin. “He’s the definition of an American hero, a man with a big heart. Well done, Walt.”
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