The backstory: For those unfamiliar with the Apollo program, Apollo 7 was the first 11-day crewed mission in the Apollo program series launched in 1968. It was a critical step in the history of space exploration, as it marked the first time live TV was broadcast from orbit and came after the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy, where three astronauts were killed in a rehearsal test fire. Walter Cunningham served as the lunar module pilot on the mission alongside two others – Navy Captain Walter Schirra and Air Force Major Donn Eisele. The crew's live broadcasts from space even earned them an Emmy award.
Cunningham was born in Creston, Iowa, and received a master's degree in physics from the University of California before being selected for the astronaut program at NASA. Before joining NASA, he had a distinguished career in the military, serving in the US Navy and Marines and flying 54 fighter jet missions in Korea. He retired in 1971 and became a public speaker and radio host. Cunningham was also known for his controversial views on climate change, publicly denying that human activity was a cause of it.
The development: Cunningham passed away on Tuesday at the age of 90 in Houston, Texas, due to natural causes. He was the final surviving member of the historic Apollo 7 mission, and his passing marks the end of an era in space exploration. Describing his outlook during an interview with NASA, he said, "I'm one of those people that never really looked back … I've always been looking to the future. I don't live in the past."
"Walt Cunningham was a fighter pilot, physicist, and an entrepreneur – but, above all, he was an explorer. On Apollo 7, the first launch of a crewed Apollo mission, Walt and his crewmates made history, paving the way for the Artemis Generation we see today," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "NASA will always remember his contributions to our nation's space program and sends our condolences to the Cunningham family."
"We would like to express our immense pride in the life that he lived, and our deep gratitude for the man that he was – a patriot, an explorer, pilot, astronaut, husband, brother, and father. The world has lost another true hero, and we will miss him dearly," said the Cunningham family in a statement shared by NASA, the US space agency.
"On behalf of NASA's Johnson Space Center, we are beholden to Walt's service to our nation and dedication to the advancement of human space exploration," said center director Vanessa Wyche. "Walt's accomplished legacy will continue to serve as an inspiration to us all."