Saturn IVB (S4B) stage from Apollo 7. Cropped image of still number AS07-3-1551 from the Project Apollo Archive.

Meeting Apollo 7 Astronaut Walt Cunningham

Apollo 7 Astronaut Walt Cunningham was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 7, the first manned mission in the Apollo program after the fatal cabin fire of Apollo 1.  Today I’m meeting him in Walsall and listening to his talk “Apollo – The Golden Age of Spaceflight.”

Walt Cunningham, Apollo 7 astronaut.
Walt Cunningham, Apollo 7 astronaut.

Walking in to have my photo taken with him, he spies my photo I’ll be having signed later, grabs my hand and says…

“That photo you have over there, that’s one of my favourites – I took it.”

To which we then both laugh and explains my goofy look when the photographer takes the picture.  His lecture today is not specifically about his spaceflight, but on what he considers to be the golden age of Apollo. During his talk, Walt references Apollo against the stark contrast to today’s risk averse society against the Delage Definition of Adventure:

  • Must advance human knowledge
  • Must have a real risk of dying
  • Must have an uncertain outcome

That was the Apollo programme; to land a man on the moon.  Walt Cunningham’s talk today is more of a personal reflection of Apollo, his memories of being selected for astronaut group three and undergoing tests, his room mate Robert Shumaker later being captured by Vietcong, having the Right Stuff and large egos, losing friends in the Apollo 1.  How 6 landings and 12 men walked on the moon and advanced man’s knowledge, each of these missions being uncertain until splashdown.

Saturn IVB (S4B) stage from Apollo 7. Cropped image of still number AS07-3-1551 from the Project Apollo Archive.
Saturn IVB (S4B) stage from Apollo 7. Cropped image of still number AS07-3-1551 from the Project Apollo Archive.

 

We were warm, feeling, emotional and committed individuals.  Five hundred years from now there will only be one event in the 20th century that will stand the test of time and that is landing on the moon. The most spiritually elevating event in our lifetime. For a brief time, our society felt good about itself. We felt together.

Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham
Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham

The Apollo 1 launchpad fire, January 27th 1967, 3 good men paid the price of progress, and I lost 3 good friends, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Group 3 astronauts. Back row, L-R: Collins, Cunningham, Eisele, Freeman, Gordon, Schweickart, Scott, Williams. Front row, L-R: Aldrin, Anders, Bassett, Bean, Cernan, Chaffee.
Group 3 astronauts. Back row, L-R: Collins, Cunningham, Eisele, Freeman, Gordon, Schweickart, Scott, Williams. Front row, L-R: Aldrin, Anders, Bassett, Bean, Cernan, Chaffee.

After more than a 1000 changes, Apollo 7 rose from the ashes of the Apollo 1 flight, very much like the phoenix, Apollo 7 was an ambitious effort to make up for the lost time; we were racing the Russians to the moon.

Apollo 7 crew Command Module pilot, Don F. Eisele, Commander, Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Lunar Module pilot, Walter Cunningham.
Apollo 7 crew Command Module pilot, Don F. Eisele, Commander, Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Lunar Module pilot, Walter Cunningham.

Apollo 7 was launched on October 11 1968, an 11 day Earth orbit test flight, the first launch of the Saturn rocket (the slightly smaller Saturn IB booster compared to the Saturn V), first manned test of the redesigned Command Service Module and first live TV broadcast from an American spacecraft.  Although the flight did not carry a Lunar Module, Walt Cunningham was kept busy completing system tests with Commander Walter Schirra and Command Module Pilot Donn Eisele on essentially a practice flight testing guidance and control systems, simulated rendezvous and docking operations between the CSM (Command Service Module) and the S-IVB stage.

Walt Cunningham inside the Command Module during Apollo 7
Walt Cunningham inside the Command Module during Apollo 7

Apollo 7 was considered a success and gave NASA confidence to launch Apollo 8 around the moon only two months later. The flight was not without controversy though, with the so-called “mutiny in space” after the crew’s development of severe head colds and motion sickness which caused tensions with Mission Control and some of the task they were required to do.  As a result of these tensions, Walt Cunningham and the rest of the crew were rejected for future missions and never flew in space again. Walt Cunningham later became management in the Skylab program and during his talk today stated that he thought this was a greater contribution to NASA than his Apollo 7 flight.

You might also like the other astronaut events I’ve attended:

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean

Ken Mattingly – The Spirit and Triumph of Apollo 13

CosmicCon – Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle Astronauts

Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins

Fred Haise Apollo 13 – Failure Is Not An Option

Nick Cook

Amateur astronomer, space, history, nerd, extreme dog walker, cat slave, doorstep daytripper, severe tinnitus sufferer. 13.7 billion years in the making - not that much better for it. Knows more about swords than is probably healthy for a man.

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