Walter Cunningham, the last surviving astronaut from the first successful crewed space mission in NASA’s Apollo program, has died aged 90.
Cunningham joined crewmates Walter Schirra and Donn Eisele for the 11-day Apollo 7 mission in 1968, which was conducted in low-Earth orbit.
Their mission was the first human test flight of the new Apollo spacecraft, which would see a dozen astronauts land on the lunar surface from 1969 and 1972.
Cunningham was the flight’s lunar module pilot, even though Apollo 7 did not carry the moon landing craft, and he was responsible for all spacecraft systems except launch and navigation.
He was the last surviving member of the crew after mission commander Walter Schirra and command module pilot Donn Eisele died in 2007 and 1987 respectively.
Cunningham’s family said he died in hospital “from complications of a fall, after a full and complete life”.
Blasting off on 11 October 1968, Apollo 7 marked the resumption of NASA’s lunar spaceflight program 21 months after the fire that killed all three members of the Apollo 1 crew – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – during a ground-based launch rehearsal in late January 1967.
Prior to his assignment to Apollo 7, Cunningham had been the backup lunar module pilot for the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission, and was on the prime crew for Apollo 2 until it was cancelled.
Apollo 7 provided the first live TV transmission of onboard crew activities, and was noted for testy exchanges between ground control and the astronauts, who developed head colds during the flight and openly voiced annoyance with mission directors at times.
Due in part to those tensions, none of the three astronauts went to space again.
The mission was considered a technical success for proving the capabilities of systems that would carry Apollo 11 to the lunar surface in July 1969.
Cunningham, who served in the US Navy and Marine Corps, flying 54 missions as a fighter pilot before retiring with the
rank of colonel, was selected as an astronaut in 1963 as part of NASA’s third astronaut class.
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Between his military service and NASA tenure, Cunningham spent three years as a scientist working on classified defence studies and problems related to the Earth’s magnetic field.
“Walt Cunningham was a fighter pilot, physicist and an entrepreneur – but, above all, he was an explorer,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement announcing his death.
Following Apollo 7, Cunningham was assigned to lead the Skylab branch – an early space station program – under NASA’s flight crew directorate, and he retired from the space agency in 1971.
He went on to a post-NASA career as an investor and executive in several business ventures, becoming a frequent keynote speaker and radio talk show host.
Cunningham is survived by his wife Dorothy and his children Brian and Kimberly.