NASA Apollo astronaut Walt Cunningham has died : NPR

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Lunar module pilot Walt Cunningham performs flight tasks on day nine of the Apollo 7 mission in 1968.

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Lunar module pilot Walt Cunningham performs flight tasks on day nine of the Apollo 7 mission in 1968.

NASA

One of the early Apollo astronauts has died. Walt Cunningham died Tuesday after complications from a fall. He was 90 years old.

Walt Cunningham flew into space only once. His flight in 1968 was an important – and often forgotten – one for the lunar program.

Cunningham was the lunar module pilot of the first manned Apollo mission to space. Apollo 7The 11-day trip around Earth was a key step in NASA’s march to the moon.

“The real achievement, of course, was the first manned landing on the moon,” Cunningham told NPR in 2016. “But this was the fifth of what I always described as five giant steps. The first one was the Apollo 7 mission. , of course. A complete test of the Apollo spacecraft.”

The launch came after a difficult time for NASA. Just 21 months earlier, a fire on the launchpad killed three astronauts during a test of Apollo 1. Meanwhile, NASA changed many procedures and the command module went through a series of safety improvements.

Astronauts Walt Cunningham (left) of Apollo 7, and Jim Lovell of Apollo 8 and Apollo 13, participate in an event in Washington marking the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing.

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Astronauts Walt Cunningham (left) of Apollo 7, and Jim Lovell of Apollo 8 and Apollo 13, participate in an event in Washington marking the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Cunningham said in 2016 that if Apollo 7 had not gone well, the United States would not have landed on the moon before the end of the 1960s. “Historically, what the public doesn’t realize,” he said, “It’s still the longest, most ambitious, most successful test flight of any new machine ever to fly.”

“There were many things that had to be tested,” he recalled. During the flight, the crew fired the engine that would put Apollo in and out of lunar orbit, simulated docking maneuvers and made the first live television broadcast from an American spacecraft.

“It was hard to imagine that we could go through all those things [in an 11-day mission] without something going wrong and saying, “hey you have to come home,” Cunningham said.

The mission was considered a success but it was the last time these astronauts will fly in space. There was tension between the commander of Apollo 7, Wally Schirra, and mission control. As the flight dragged on, Schirra caught a cold and so did astronaut Donn Eisele and the crew’s confusion worsened with ground controllers. Nevertheless, Cunningham said, “As I look back on it, it was a job, a challenge, and a task that was ultimately very well done.”

Cunningham left NASA in 1971 after serving as manager for Skylab, the US space station. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a colonel and attended Harvard Business School, dabbling in venture capital. He also hosted a radio talk show.

Cunningham was a physicist and later became known for it skeptical views of climate change, which does not agree with a large scientific belief that humans are to blame for the increase in global temperatures. He wrote, “There is a war going on between those who believe that human activities are responsible for global warming and those who do not.”

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