Walt Cunningham, Apollo astronaut who helped put moon landings back on track – obituary

Walt Cunningham, Apollo astronaut who helped put moon landings back on track – obituary

Walt Cunningham, Apollo astronaut who helped put moon landings back on track – obituary

Apollo 7 crew, lr, Don Eisele, Walter Schirra and Walt Cunningham - Heritage Space/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Apollo 7 crew, lr, Don Eisele, Walter Schirra and Walt Cunningham – Heritage Space/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Walt Cunningham, who died at the age of 90, was an American astronaut and physicist who flew into space on the first manned Apollo flight. His mission put the moon landing program back on track after a disastrous fire in a faulty capsule killed three astronauts on the launch pad.

In January 1967, Cunningham, his commander Wally Schirra, and his crewmate Donn Eisele, were training for the unglamorous Apollo 2 mission, largely a repeat of the first. The prime spot for the maiden flight of Apollo 1 was given to the more experienced team of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who were in their capsule atop the rocket struggling with repeated equipment failures during a countdown test.

Sudden screams over the radio link heralded a fire, which broke out terribly in the atmosphere of pure oxygen, destroying the interior of the cabin and melting the space suits. The men suffocated in their desperate attempts to open the hatch.

As the commotion subsided and a massive effort to redesign the Apollo capsule got underway, Cunningham and his colleagues were quietly reassigned to a new mission, which became Apollo 7 after several uncrewed test flights.

Cunningham during the Apollo 7 mission - Space Frontiers/Getty Images

Cunningham during the Apollo 7 mission – Space Frontiers/Getty Images

In October 1968, Apollo 7 rose from the same launch pad and in the same black-and-white rocket on which his companions had perished, in a new capsule with a non-flammable interior. Flight director Glynn Lunney supervised its ascent from mission control in Houston, and 10 minutes later, Apollo 7 glided smoothly into orbit at 17,400 mph, 142 miles above Earth.

They had embarked on an ambitious 11-day flight that would emulate the duration in space required for the first moon landing the following year. It was, and remains, the longest maiden test flight ever by any spacecraft. In this single flight, they accumulated more man-days in orbit than all Russian space flights to that date.

They carried out many experiments, including extensive color photography of the Earth and a thorough review of the new Apollo spacecraft. Once separated from the rocket, they turned and approached the empty stage, simulating the maneuver to extract the lunar lander that would be instrumental in achieving the first moon landing nine months later.

However, it was the last-minute addition of a black-and-white television camera that captured the public’s imagination. Whereas previous smaller spacecraft crews had been forced to stay in their cramped seats, Apollo was extraordinarily roomy by comparison.

Seven live television shows, broadcast around the world, brought terrestrial audiences the fascinating novelty of weightlessness. The crew ate from floating jugs, drank water globules, and playfully twirled objects in the air. In amazing antics, Cunningham swam past the camera, turning and twisting upside down. It was the most memorable television of the year and won an Emmy Award.

But as the flight progressed, Schirra developed a bad cold that became uncomfortable in the absence of gravity to drain blocked nasal passages. The commander told mission control that the entire crew was sick, canceled some assignments, and declined several requests for retesting. Cunningham would later insist that he never caught it and that “when Wally had a cold, everyone had a cold.”

They were soon branded as the argumentative crew who were sick in space. Unable to blow his nose when he was wearing a space helmet, Schirra disobeyed safety protocol and had the crew return to Earth without them, meaning that a cabin depressurization during reentry would have been fatal.

These disputes did not matter to Schirra, who had announced his intention to retire after the flight. But the disobedience angered NASA management and ruined the careers of Cunningham and Eisele, who never flew again. Meanwhile, Schirra did TV commercials for the cold remedy Actifed.

The Apollo 7 crew after splashdown: lr, Walter Schirra, Walt Cunningham and Don Eiseke - Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive

The Apollo 7 crew after splashdown: lr, Walter Schirra, Walt Cunningham and Don Eiseke – Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive

Apollo 7 became the only crew not to receive the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, clearly a punishment for Schirra’s cavalier attitude toward authority. The omission was rectified on the flight’s 40th anniversary in 2008, but by then only Cunningham was alive to receive his in person.

Ronnie Walter Cunningham was born on March 16, 1932 in Creston, Iowa. His father Walter later brought the family to Venice, California. Young Walt was the eldest of five children and earned two degrees in physics from UCLA. His ambition led him to get out of poverty and, as he himself said, to achieve it, “the vehicle was the plane.”

He joined the US Navy in 1951 and learned to fly, then served in Korea as a Marine Corps pilot. He became a research scientist for the RAND Corporation, then joined NASA in 1963 as part of the third induction of astronauts, along with future lunar luminaries such as Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Gene Cernan.

After Apollo 7, Cunningham worked on the Skylab space station, but was not chosen as commander and left NASA in 1971. He entered the private sector as an entrepreneur and investor. His book, The All-American Boys (1977), is widely regarded as one of the most candid and penetrating accounts of life as an astronaut.

Walt Cunningham married Lo Ella Irby, with whom he had a daughter and a son. He later remarried to Dorothy Cunningham, who survives him.

Walt Cunningham, born March 16, 1932, died January 3, 2022

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