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Walt Cunningham – Space Pioneer

Posted on Tuesday, January 10, 2023
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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6 Comments
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American heroes do not come truer to life than Walt Cunningham – a boy from Iowa who signed up out of high school to be a US Marine Corps fighter pilot, flew 54 combat missions in Korea, returned to finish college, got his masters and PhD in physics, selected to be a NASA astronaut, and then Apollo 7’s lunar module pilot.

Walt was blunt, humble and funny, an unapologetic conservative, incisive writer, occasional radio host, relentless contributor to the public good, and voice of reason – a friend of all Americans. He was also my friend for the past 25 years. Surrounded by family, age 90, he died quietly on January 3.

How do you put into proper perspective a life like Walt’s, filled with incalculable risk, unabashed love of his country, unremitting effort, giving and serving, no looking back, no excuses, no interest in stardom, always mission focused, and brutally honest? It is hard.

In an age when “hero” is used to describe athletes, activists, politicians, businesspeople, someone outspoken for a cause, and animated characters, Walt was the real thing. He lost friends and a brother in aviation accidents, was back-up for Apollo One, was next to fly after three colleagues died in a tragic launch pad fire. He never hesitated, just lived to do his best at what he was blessed to do – fly, serve, learn, and give back.   

A man of faith, when asked about fear, he strained to explain. No, he did not think about death getting into the Apollo 7 capsule or flying combat missions. He was not concerned about it and crossed that bridge long ago, when he – like other pilots and astronauts – decided that their lives were worth risking for America.

That was it, he did not concern himself about death again. He served on the accident review investigation for Apollo One, helped redesign the capsule after a short circuit in a pure oxygen environment killed the crew. He “trusted the engineers” because “they had their job and we had ours.” Besides, “if something went wrong, we thought we could handle it.” When things went awry, they did handle it.

When Apollo 7 launched in October 1968, the mission was more than “another launch.” It was the embodiment of a shattered nation’s hopes, oddly emblematic of a Phoenix “rising from the ashes.” In 1962, John F. Kennedy had thrown down the gauntlet, challenging the Soviet Union to the moon race. One year later, Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1967, amid a cultural riptide, the Apollo One crew died. In April 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated. In June 1968, presidential candidate and attorney general Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Into this horrific mix, fear, loss, and challenge, stepped the Apollo 7 crew.

The Apollo One’s disaster – 21 months earlier – had rocked the nation, the way Challenger and Columbia later did, with the added potential for cratering the entire Space Race. But – in the person of people like Walt Cunningham – America took a deep breath, figured things out, and got back up.

While Apollo 11 later put astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Mike Collins in lunar orbit – all ahead of the Soviets – the nation focused in October 1968 on Apollo 7. This was now to be the first manned Apollo mission, and was readied for launch amid an extraordinary downdraft, national remorse, recriminations, fear, and self-doubt. The mission had to succeed.

Walt knew it at the time, the stakes, the public hesitation, worry, distress, and all that rode on this mission. He knew that the mission not only had to launch, get up and back safely, but had to be picture perfect.  They would be up 11 days, test hundreds and hundreds of systems, making the eventual moon launch possible. They could not fail, because if they did, the whole program might slide backwards.

Walt never doubted it would be a perfect mission, or that he, Wally Schirra and Don Eisele, could do what was being asked of them, make it so. When the mission launched, the nation was awed. When they returned successfully, having done everything and more than required, the nation celebrated.

Truth is – and we forget history so easily – without Apollo 7’s victory, there would not have been Americans walking on the moon, would not have been victory in the Space Race, and America might well have stumbled, leading to where … no one knows. We do not know, because the tenacity of Walt and his cremates – their determination to make that mission a perfect first, was unshakable. The did it.

Now 55 years later, we can say with resolve that America won the Space Race, rose to the moment, turned the dial, and with that turn the entire Cold War began to turn. Few knew the name Walt Cunningham, but they should. 

Walt Cunningham was more than a space pioneer, more than someone who stepped into the breach – true of all astronauts when called. He was the man of the hour, he and his Apollo 7 crewmates. They put fear, doubt, and hesitation behind them – and succeeded. Because they did, we did. 

Walt was a humorous, witty, wise and humble American, the kind of hero you imagine exists, ready to rise when needed, do the near impossible, then humbly go on with his life after having done so. He was a friend to every American, man of unbreakable spirit and principle, and friend of mine. His passing is a loss for all of us, but his example is a beacon – and it shines brightly. Thank you, Walt.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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George M
George M
1 year ago

God Bless a true Patriot , may he Rest In Peace .

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
1 year ago

Honor him with:
Air Museum
Voc Ed School
Bldg wing
Airfield
alone

David Millikan
David Millikan
1 year ago

R.I.P. and thank you.
I remember watching every Apollo mission launch. It was exciting times.

LikeItIs
LikeItIs
1 year ago

Thank you for that.

Lyn
Lyn
1 year ago

Sounds just like my Dad.

Gwyn Makara
Gwyn Makara
1 year ago

That this man thought the way he lived is an example of what Americans were taught we were as I grew up! Now nearing 80, I miss that country that I grew up in and all the remarkable people I met till started to forget who we truly are and substitute fear for courage!

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