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Walter Cunningham, a retired NASA astronaut and pilot of the first crewed flight in the space agency’s famed Apollo program, died early Tuesday morning at the age of 90, NASA announced.
Cunningham was one of the first members of NASA’s human spaceflight program as a member of its third class of astronauts, joining the space agency in 1963. He was selected to fly Apollo 7, the first mission crewed NASA program that continued to land humans. on the moon for the first time.
“We would like 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,” noted the Cunningham family in a statement shared by NASA. “The world has lost another true hero, and he will be sorely missed.”
The Apollo 7 mission launched in 1968 and lasted approximately 11 days, sending the crew on a journey into orbit that amounted to a test flight that could demonstrate the Apollo capsule’s ability to meet another orbiting spacecraft and open the way to a deeper future exploration in space. He was also notable for appearing on the first live American television broadcast from space, according to NASA.
Cunningham was the last surviving member of the Apollo 7 crew, which also included astronauts Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele.
Born in Creston, Iowa, and holder of an honors bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree with honors in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, Cunningham was 36 when the Apollo 7 mission launched. During an interview with the NASA Oral History Office in 1999, he reflected on his career path and motivations.
“I’m one of those people who never really looked back. I only remember that when someone asked me after I became an astronaut,” Cunningham said. “All I remember is just keeping my nose to the grindstone and wanting to do my best because – I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was because I’ve always wanted to be better prepared for the next step. I’ve always looked to the future. I don’t live in the past.
Although he only ventured into space once, Cunningham became a leader in NASA’s Skylab program, the United States’ first space station that orbited Earth from 1973 to 1979.
Before joining NASA, Cunningham enlisted in the US Navy and began pilot training in 1952, according to his official NASA biography, and he served as a fighter pilot with the US Marine Corps on 54 missions. in Korea.
“The only thing I remember doing specifically to become an astronaut, because I watched I became one of, if not the best, fighter pilot in the world,” Cunningham said in the interview with the NASA Oral History Office.
Cunningham also completed a doctorate in physics at UCLA without completing a thesis, and later, in 1974, he completed an advanced management program at the Harvard Graduate School of Business, according to NASA.
He worked as a physicist for the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit military think tank, before joining the astronaut corps.
After leaving the space agency, Cunningham wore many hats, taking on various roles in the private sector. According to his NASA biography, he held several senior positions at development companies, worked as a consultant for startups, became an entrepreneur and investor, and ultimately became a radio talk show host.
Over the next few years, Cunningham also became an outspoken critic of mainstream notions about humanity’s impact on climate change.