Apollo 7’s Walt Cunningham (1932-2023)

Walt Cunningham observes the Earth during Apollo 7, Oct. 11-22, 1968

*****

Who remembers Apollo 7, quickly overshadowed by Apollo 8’s first trip around the moon two months later, and if recalled, remembered for the imagine of Wally Schirra, the flight’s commander, suffering a head cold in orbit, irritable and ornery, complaining about added tests, fighting with mission control during the long and at times boring 11-day shakedown cruise of the vital Apollo Command and Service Modules, or if pictured for something else, the first live TV broadcasts from an American spacecraft, quickly dubbed “The Wally, Walt, and Donn Show,” for the first names of the crew?

Yet Apollo 7, Oct. 11-22, 1968, even though a “mere” Earth orbital flight, should be remembered equally with the great flights of Apollo.  Apollo 7 marked the return to flight after the Apollo fire of 1967.  And the first flight of any bird is always special. 

Walt Cunningham, the last of the first Apollo crew, born on March 16, 1932, a Marine Corps pilot in the 1950s before gaining degrees in physics, chosen as an astronaut in Group Three (Oct. 1963), the second civilian astronaut to fly (Neil Armstrong was first), died at age 90 on Jan. 3, 2023. 

Cunningham carried the title Lunar Module Pilot, even though there was no Lunar Module, and in reality he served as flight engineer.  With the entire Apollo 7 crew tainted by the perceived “rebellion” in orbit, neither Cunningham, who for a time served as director of Skylab, or Donn Eiselie, who was on the Apollo 10 backup crew, flew in space again (Schirra planned all along to retire after Apollo 7).  Schirra died in 2007, and Command Module Pilot Eiselie died in 1987.  

In his well-received memoir, The All-American Boys, (published by Macmillan in 1977, with an updated edition published in 2003 by ibooks), Cunningham wrote of retrofire and reentry, “From the time Apollo 7 started her long slide down the pike, I was already feeling melancholic and cheated.  Something I had gloried in and had truly loved was being taken away away.”

So let’s turn back the clock to before 6 a.m. on October 22, 1968, and leave Walt Cunningham still in orbit with far to fly and more missions ahead. 

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