Watch CBS News

Walter Cunningham, Apollo 7's last surviving astronaut, dies at 90: "He is the definition of an American hero"

On Oct. 11, 1968, three men boarded NASA's Saturn IB and had what the agency described as a "perfect launch" into space in the first crewed Apollo mission. On Tuesday, Walter Cunningham – the last surviving astronaut on that mission who helped pave the way for humans to walk on the moon – died in Houston. 

NASA announced the 90-year-old Cunningham's death on Tuesday. In a statement provided to NASA, Cunningham's family did not confirm his cause of death. 

"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," his family said. "The world has lost another true hero, and we will miss him dearly."

NASA said that along with being a fighter pilot, physicist and entrepreneur, 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," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. "NASA will always remember his contributions to our nation's space program and sends our condolences to the Cunningham family."

Apollo 7 Astronauts
Apollo 7 astronauts Walter Cunningham (L), command module pilot; Walter M.Schirra, Jr. (C), commander, and Donn Eisele, lunar module pilot, pause outside their spacecraft following a satisfactory crew compartment test at North American Rockwell's Space Division. Bettmann/Getty

After graduating from high school in California, Cunningham joined the U.S. Navy in 1951, where he served as a night fighter pilot in Korea. From there, he went on to study physics, earning his Master of Arts with distinction in physics in 1961. 

Two years later, NASA made him an astronaut. 

One of his first encounters, however, ended in tragedy. He, along with Walter Schirra and Donn Eisele, were backup crew members on the Apollo 1 mission in 1967 when a flash fire occurred during a launch pad test. The incident resulted in the deaths of three other astronauts. 

A year later, those three backup crew members made history as they became the first human test flight of the Apollo spacecraft. They stayed in space for 11 days, traveling 4.5 million miles, with Cunningham serving as their lunar module pilot. The mission also provided the first live TV transmission of onboard activities in space. 

After that mission, Cunningham became chief of the Skylab branch of the Flight Crew Directorate, NASA said, during which time he helped manage major pieces of manned space hardware, launch vehicles and dozens of experiments. He retired from the agency in 1971, NASA said, and went on to get his doctorate in physics with the exception of his thesis in 1974. 

The Apollo 7 mission was an essential step in the history-making space venture that would take place just months later in July 1969. It was then that Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, uttering his famous words as he climbed down the ladder: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." 

Buzz Aldrin joined him on the lunar surface shortly after, describing it as "magnificent desolation." 

Aldrin paid tribute to Cunningham after learning of his death on Tuesday, saying he has "lost a good friend." 

"America and Apollo 11 wouldn't have gotten to the moon without Walt's courage and the Apollo 7 flight. Their mission made possible every other Apollo mission," Aldrin said. "He is the definition of an American hero, a man of enormous heart. Godspeed Walt."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.