Walter Cunningham, the last surviving astronaut of NASA’s Apollo program’s first successful human spaceflight mission, has died at the age of 90.
In 1968, Cunningham joined colleagues Walter Schirra and Donn Eisele on the 11-day Apollo 7 mission, which was in low Earth orbit carried out on.
Their mission was the first crewed test flight of the new Apollo spacecraft, and more than a dozen astronauts would land on the lunar surface from 1969 to 1972.
Cunningham was the lunar module pilot for this flight, and although Apollo 7 did not carry a lunar lander, he was responsible for all spacecraft systems except launch and navigation.
He was the last surviving crew member after the deaths of mission commander Walter Sheela and command module pilot Don Ethel in 2007 and 1987, respectively.
Cunningham’s family said he died in hospital “of complications from a fall” after living a full and complete life.
The Apollo 7 launch on October 11, 1968, marking NASA’s lunar spaceflight program was 21 months later when a fire broke out during a rehearsal for a ground launch that killed Apollo 1 crew members Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were both killed 21 months late January 1967.
Cunningham was the backup lunar module pilot for the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission until he was assigned to Apollo 7, and was the primary crew member until the Apollo 2 mission was cancelled.
Apollo 7 provided the first live television coverage of crew activities and was known for testy exchanges between ground controllers and astronauts who caught colds during the flight and sometimes publicly expressed displeasure with mission leaders.
Due in part to these tensions, none of the three astronauts ever went to space again.
In July 1969, the mission was considered a technical success, demonstrating the capabilities of the systems that carried Apollo 11 to the lunar surface.
Cunningham served in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, flying 54 missions as a fighter pilot before retiring
The rank of colonel was selected as an astronaut in NASA’s third astronaut class in 1963.
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During military service and NASA, Cunningham spent three years as a scientist working on classified defense research and issues related to the Earth’s magnetic field.
“Walt Cunningham was a fighter pilot, a physicist, and an entrepreneur—but most of all, he was an explorer,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson ) said in a statement announcing his death.
After Apollo 7, Cunningham was assigned to lead the Skylab branch under NASA’s Flight Crew Directorate, an early space station project, and he retired from the space agency in 1971.
After leaving NASA, he began his career as an investor and executive in various businesses, as a frequent keynote speaker and radio talk show host.
Cunningham is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and his children, Brian and Kimberly.