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NASA Apollo astronaut Walt Cunningham has died at age 90

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

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

Walt Cunningham flew in space just one time. 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 that went to space. Apollo 7's 11-day trip around the Earth was a key stepping stone to NASA's march to the moon.

"The real accomplishment, of course, was the first manned landing on the moon," Cunningham told NPR in 2016. "But that was the fifth of what I've always described as five giant steps. The first one was the Apollo 7 mission, of course. Complete test of the Apollo spacecraft."

The launch came after a difficult time for NASA. Just 21 months before, a fire on the launchpad killed three astronauts during a test of Apollo 1. In the interim, NASA changed many procedures and the command module underwent 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 anniversary of the first moon landing.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images
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Getty Images
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 anniversary of the first moon landing.

Cunningham said in 2016 that if Apollo 7 had not gone well, the U.S. wouldn't have landed on the moon before the end of the 1960s. "Historically, what the public doesn't realize," he said, "It is still the longest, most ambitious, most successful first test flight of any new flying machine ever."

"There were so many things that had to be tested," he recalled. During the flight, the crew test-fired the engine that would place Apollo into and out of lunar orbit, simulated docking maneuvers and did the first-ever live television broadcast from an American spacecraft.

"It was hard to imagine that we could get through all those things [in an 11-day mission] without something going wrong and saying, 'hey you need to gotta come home," Cunningham said.

The mission was deemed a success but it was the last time these astronauts would fly in space. There was tension between Apollo 7's commander, Wally Schirra, and mission control. As the flight dragged on, Schirra caught a cold and so did astronaut Donn Eisele and the crew's squabbles worsened with ground controllers. Despite that, Cunningham said, "As I look back on it, it was a job, a challenge, and a task that in the end was very well done."

Cunningham left NASA in 1971 after serving as a manager for Skylab, the U.S. 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 his skeptical views of climate change, disagreeing with overwhelming scientific belief that humans are to blame for increasing 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 don't."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.