Walter Cunningham orbited the Earth 163 times on the first manned Apollo space mission on the nation’s eventual journey to the moon.
The 85-year-old space pioneer and former Marine Corps fighter pilot in the Korean war has marked a new milestone nearly 50 years after the historic space flight with his selection into 2018 class of the National Aviation Hall of Fame at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Other inductees were: the late William H. Dana, an X-15 rocket plane pilot; former Deputy NASA administrator John R. Dailey, a retired Marine Corps general; and retired Gen. Ronald Fogleman, a former Air Force chief of staff and pilot in the Vietnam war.
“I’ve never been as personally excited as when I got this for the Aviation Hall of Fame,” Cunningham said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Houston, Texas. “That is the honest to God truth.”
While not well remembered today, the first manned Apollo flight with a crew of three – included commander Wally Schirra and fellow astronaut Donn Eisele – tested the spacecraft on a nearly 11-day, more than 4.5 million trek in October 1968.
“We’re still the longest, most ambitious, most successful flight test of any new flying machine ever,” Cunningham said.
The flight helped to restore faith in NASA’s goal to reach the moon after three astronauts – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee of Apollo 1 — were killed the year before in a tragic flash fire in a space capsule during a launch rehearsal in Florida. Apollo 11 would reach the moon in July 1969.
On the Apollo 7 flight, Cunningham said: “We looked at the operation as really the satisfaction of very serious training and we were at a phase where many people in the public didn’t want to see us going into space anymore because they worried about the risk.”
The flight rocketed into space with three people, another first for NASA, and broadcast on live television from space for the first time. The mission simulated a command module docking with a lunar module that would be used to land on the moon. On its plunge to Earth, the space capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean less than a mile from the planned pick-up point.
The 1960s space age era cutting-edge technology made history. But everyday technology today has significantly progressed, he said.
“Your cell phone today is thousands of times more capable and (has) more memory tan we had on our navigation computer,” he said.
At the time, the Apollo space voyagers were in contact with the ground about 4 percent of the time because a network of satellite communications didn’t exist, so the spacecraft contacted ground stations, he said.
“The only time we had more than a couple minutes communication is where we were coming across the U.S.,” he said.
Another contrast: Missions on the International Space Station have taken thousands of digital pictures; Apollo 7 astronauts carried enough film to take 400 photos.
“We had no idea really of what all we had good pictures of until about three days after we got back and they’d all been developed,” he said.
Cunningham said the risk taking of the space era is something the nation has lost.
He said he counts his time as a Marine fighter pilot as his greatest opportunity. “Part of the reason why is the attitude that you develop,” he said. “…You’ve got to be willing to accept risk in your life and today that seems to be different. We’re really developing a risk-averse society these days.”
Still, he said he believes the risk taking will return, someday, as the nation pushes beyond the moon.
NASA put him in charge of overseeing preparations to launch the Skylab program into orbit, but when he was passed over for missions to the moon and the new orbiting laboratory he left the space agency in 1971.
The retired colonel has had a career as an author, physicist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist and radio talk show host.