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Walt Cunningham during Apollo 7, his only spaceflight. (credit: NASA)

“The All-American Boy”: Walt Cunningham speaks on Apollo 7 and more

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Walter Cunningham possesses that composed, tanned look that epitomizes the stereotypical former astronaut. Cunningham, who turns 82 next month, certainly looks younger than any of his biographies say he is. Born in the small town of Creston, Iowa, in 1932, the Houston resident has had quite a life. Known for his honesty, Cunningham’s website is littered with articles he has written on topics ranging from climate change to the future of American human space travel: if he has something to say, he’ll say it.

After Apollo 1 “we were just concerned we lost some friends we lived with for a long time, other pilots, but for us it never caused any hesitation about flying and going on.”

After finishing high school, Cunningham decided to join the US Navy in 1951, beginning flight training the following year. He ultimately served as a fighter pilot in the United States Marine Corps, a job that truly required the “Right Stuff.’ Asked about this period in his life, Cunningham notes “…once a Marine, always a Marine. And that was what defined my life, not being an astronaut. In fact I wouldn’t have been an astronaut had I not been a Marine Corps fighter pilot.” Having accumulated over 4,500 hours of flying time, including more than 3,400 in jet aircraft, it is safe to say Cunningham was one of the finest pilots of his day.

It was because of his piloting as well as his physics education—he earned his masters degree at UCLA—that Cunningham was ultimately chosen as an astronaut by NASA. He doesn’t however remember ever feeling unsettled in the air, saying flying was “the most natural thing I ever did, I don’t ever remember being in a position in an airplane that bothered me, even when I was young and relatively inexperienced and I did anything that was in front of me.” Perhaps this daring attitude was something he inherited from his boyhood hero Charles Lindbergh, the first to fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic in 1927. Cunningham notes that he “only remembers one boyhood hero and that was Charles Lindbergh, so I just took it for granted that what I wanted to do was fly someday.”

Selected as one of fourteen members of the third group of NASA astronauts in October 1963, Cunningham’s first crew assignment was as prime lunar module pilot on Apollo 2. However, time issues arose and as Cunningham recalls, “…when we got behind schedule they cancelled Apollo 2 and we’d been training on that for seven or eight months. And when they did they moved us on as backup crew for Apollo 1 because they had the same kind of spacecraft.” But this plan too would eventually be compromised, albeit in an altogether more tragic fashion.

January 27, 1967, is a day which all those associated with the American space enterprise in the 1960s will remember with great sorrow. It was on that day, during a routine “plugs-out” test inside the spacecraft a month before Apollo 1 was due to launch, that a spark ignited in the Command Module’s 100% oxygen environment. The ensuing fire resulted in the deaths of the prime crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, and threw Kennedy’s plans to get Americans to the Moon and back by the end of the decade into disarray.

When asked if the fire made the astronauts and others at NASA doubt whether that goal was achievable, Cunningham responds that “we were just concerned we lost some friends we lived with for a long time, other pilots, but for us it never caused any hesitation about flying and going on.” In January 1967 there were many problems with the Apollo Command Module that the astronauts were worried about, and, ironically enough, the fire may have sped up the process of getting to the Moon. As Cunningham observes, “It [the fire] gave us added strength with the contractor to fix the vehicle. There were a lot of things that we as operators wanted to get into the development but sometimes if it was gonna delay the program it couldn’t get approved or it would cost too much, things like that. And when they had the delay for the fire a lot of those things got incorporated.”

A month after the fire, Cunningham, along with veteran commander Wally Schirra and fellow rookie Donn Eisele, inherited the Apollo 1 mission. Apollos 2 through 6 were unmanned test missions, and Cunningham’s flight was therefore re-numbered and designated Apollo 7. After the year-and-a-half delay to allow for the fire investigation, the crew of Apollo 7 launched on a Saturn IB booster on October 11, 1968, and began what would be an eventful 11-day mission in Earth orbit (see “Remembering Apollo 7”, The Space Review, October 7, 2013).

“We did not all have colds” on Apollo 7. “Wally only had a cold by day two, Donn had a couple of indications, and I never had any sense of a cold.”

Cunningham notes that after the Apollo 1 fire, NASA “decided to have oxygen masks in the spacecraft, in case they had a problem with smoke fumes or things like that.” It must be remembered that the interior of an Apollo Command Module is no larger in volume than the inside of a small car, and so moving around was undoubtedly quite difficult for three grown men—not least when going to the toilet became a necessity. Cunningham remembers this uncomfortable eventuality: “you go on a low-residue diet for at least four days before you go but in spite of that, after about three or four days we got to the point where we realixed if one guy had to go, the other two would take those oxygen masks and put the oxygen masks on!” The joys of being an astronaut.

During the mission the crew performed various experiments and proved the Apollo Command and Service Module’s flight worthiness, paving the way for the Apollo 8 flight around the Moon two months later. The mission wasn’t without its hitches however, with Schirra, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts and veteran of two previous spaceflights, suffering with a cold and becoming increasingly agitated and irritable towards Mission Control back in Houston. Eisele tended to follow his commander’s example, according to Cunningham. “Donn was the kind of guy who would join up. It was just his personality that if somebody was behaving a certain way he’d behave that way.”

Cunningham describes Schirra in his memoirs The All-American Boys as “The Happy Warrior,” although he does admit, “Wally was such a personality that if he had a cold, everybody had a cold.” There is often the impression that the entire crew came down with cold-like symptoms at some stage during the 11-day mission; however, Cunningham asserts this wasn’t the case. “We did not all have colds. Wally only had a cold by day two, Donn had a couple of indications, and I never had any sense of a cold.”

With Schirra, Cunningham claims, “it was always a case of who was in charge. He was a Navy guy, he was a Navy captain. Captain’s in charge of the ship, so Wally was always insisting that it was what he had to say.” All in all, however, Apollo 7 was a successful flight, and although it would be the only time both Cunningham and Eisele would fly, the mission achieved its objectives and then some. The 263-hour, 4.5-million-mile shakedown flight came to an end with a splashdown in the same Atlantic Ocean Lindbergh had flown solo over forty years previously.

After the flight, Cunningham was transferred to the Skylab program, and for a while served as chief Skylab astronaut. But things didn’t work out quite like Cunningham had hoped; when quizzed as to whether he had held ambitions about flying on a Skylab mission himself, Cunningham reveals, “When I went there I was promised the first Skylab mission. I was supposed to be commander of the first Skylab mission.” But a year and a half later, Pete Conrad ,spaceflight veteran and the third man to walk on the Moon, “decided he wasn’t gonna leave NASA yet and they put him in charge of Skylab so all of a sudden I was gonna be backup to Pete. That’s about the time I decided to get out.” Cunningham resigned from NASA in 1971.

Cunningham’s views on global warming are well known, and he has quite a bit to say on the matter. He is a physicist by education, was a founder of The Earth Awareness Foundation in 1970, has been on the board of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for five years, and has been writing articles on the environment since 2000. He is an advocate against the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW); in other words, he is a global warming skeptic.

“In our day it was something we felt was worth doing, to go out and push the frontier. Today is a risk-averse society, young people don’t wanna take chances doing anything.”

In September of this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their latest report in which they state there is now a 95% probability that humans are responsible for global warming. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the study is a call for governments to work to reach a planned UN accord in 2015 to combat global warming, while US Secretary of State John Kerry described it as “a wake-up call.” IPCC chairperson Rajendra Pachauri claims the report is “of very high quality, totally credible and robust in every sense of the scientific content.”

However, Cunningham does not agree, saying this latest report “is no more accurate than their earlier ones. This one is just a bit more toned down on its claims.” He says the IPCC are still making “false claims that computer models ‘prove’ recent global warming is due to human CO2 emissions, and that they are able to forecast future global temperatures, climates and events. In reality, the models greatly exaggerate climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide levels.” Cunningham sums up his opinion by stating that he has “yet to see data supporting the claim that humans are responsible for controlling the world’s temperature.” He even argued his case in person at the 2013 United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Warsaw in November. Although greatly outnumbered, said at a press briefing during the conference that “true believers in human-caused global warming cannot be reasoned out of their position, because it wasn’t reason which got them there in the first place.”

When asked about the current administration and where NASA is at today, Cunningham is equally as scathing. He claims that “Obama doesn’t have any interest in it [space] at all, but politicians have to go along with something.” It was Obama who, in 2010, cancelled the Constellation program to take humans back to the Moon by 2020. Cunningham argues that the young people of today have to be more daring if humans are going to once more stretch the frontiers and continue manned deep space exploration. “In our day it was something we felt was worth doing, to go out and push the frontier. Today is a risk-averse society, young people don’t wanna take chances doing anything. We thought that was part of living, it was part of how you improve, it was part of how you move society forward.”

This risk avoidance, he says, is a far cry from the days of President Kennedy. “He challenged to do the impossible and we made it work. And we would have done anything and as a matter of fact people died to make it work. Today even within NASA it’s almost a cult of avoiding risk in any way.”

When it comes to his many accomplishments, it is clear Cunningham’s time at NASA isn’t all he’s proud of: “I’m the first one in my family to go to college, and I’m the first one in my family to join the military.” He also acknowledges that “the highlight of my life was being a Marine Corps fighter pilot; I flew night-fighters in Korea when they were just barely putting second lieutenants in night-fighters. I learned about living as being full with what you do.” His fighter pilot mentality is evident as he says, “when you’re oriented towards getting the job done, you don’t give a damn what it is, you’re gonna get it done. There’s only one thing you’re concerned about: you don’t wanna screw up.”

Cunningham is the only surviving crewmember from Apollo 7: Eisele died of a heart attack in 1987 while “The Happy Warrior” Wally Schirra passed away in 2007. He celebrated the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 7 launch last October with a cocktail, and a much-deserved one at that.