Walter Cunningham, last surviving Apollo 7 astronaut, dies at 90

Apollo 7 paved the way for the moon landing, and brought space flight into the nation's living rooms.

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Walter Cunningham, an astronaut who was the last surviving member of the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, died on Tuesday at 90. The Iowa-born Cunningham served in the US Navy and Marine Corps before joining NASA in 1963 and eventually taking part in the Apollo program’s first crewed (and first televised) flight.

NASA confirmed Cunningham’s death and added that he was "instrumental to our Moon landing's program success.” According to the Houston Chronicle, Cunningham died in a local hospital of complications from a fall.

Apollo 7 was NASA’s first spaceflight after the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy, where a fire killed three astronauts during a rehearsal test. This led to a longer-than-usual training period, as NASA shelved human-crewed spaceflight for 21 months following Apollo 1. The crew spent many long hours studying the spacecraft's design and construction of the Apollo command and service modules (CSM) to help avoid a repeat tragedy, which could have been perilous for the astronauts and the program. Finally, the crew splashed down on Earth on October 22, 1968, after nearly 11 days in space. Apollo 7 further tested NASA’s equipment and helped pave the way for Apollo 11, where the first humans walked on the moon.

Four astronauts laughing and looking to the horizon in a 196
Left to right: Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele, Walter Cunningham, Dr. Donald E. Stullken (NASA)

Cunningham retired from NASA in 1971 and tried his hand at public speaking, radio hosting, offshore engineering, commercial real estate and venture capital investing. Unfortunately, he also became an outspoken climate change denier. Speaking to Forbes in 2013, Cunningham went through a laundry list of fossil-fuel industry talking points, framing modern NASA as an organization controlled by the media while claiming climate-change science was closer to demagoguery than fact. (For the record, climate change is real, and we're running out of time to avoid catastrophe.)

“I definitely believe that we lived in the good old days,” Cunningham said in a 1999 NASA interview. “We lived in the golden age of manned spaceflight. We’ve been in space now for over 40 years. The first 40 years of aviation, we went from just barely flying to jet transport, you know. And now, we haven’t moved that far since we went into space. The days through Apollo will be remembered; there’ll never be another time like that again. Even when we go to Mars, it will be different. And I feel just fortunate that I was a small part of this particular time in spaceflight.”