Apollo Pioneer

by Mark Mayfield  


Walt Cunningham may have flown just one mission, but it was one of the most important space flights ever.

By the time Apollo 7 with its three-man crew lifted off from Cape Kennedy, Florida on October 11, 1968, it had been more than 20 months since the tragic Apollo 1 fire claimed three lives and brought the space program to a standstill. Not only did Apollo 7 lift the nation’s spirits again, it was an essential step in getting NASA back on track toward a lunar landing before the decade was out.

Yet, for all of its “firsts”—the first Apollo mission, the first space flight after the fire, the first manned launch of the Saturn 1B rocket, the first time three men had flown together in one space ship, the first live TV transmission from space—Apollo 7 has been largely forgotten by a general public more interested in moon walkers from later missions.

For Walter Cunningham, a respected former Marine Corps fighter pilot who came to NASA with an extensive educational background, this would be his first—and last—spaceflight. With him on the crew were Wally Schirra, Jr. (legendary as one of the original Mercury astronauts) and Donn F. Eisele, also making his only spacefl ight. Schirra, the commander and NASA veteran, had made it clear that Apollo 7 would be his last flight. He spent much of the mission arguing with flight directors— even to the point of telling his crew not to wear helmets on re-entry, despite an explicit directive from Houston. While NASA could do little to reprimand Schirra, who was retiring, Cunningham and Eisele were never assigned another mission (although Cunningham served as chief of the Skylab astronaut office from 1968 to 1971). In spite of the rancor between Schirra and the flight directors, the Apollo 7 crew accomplished a virtually flawless mission—and paved the way for the moon landings that would follow.

Today, Schirra lives in California while Cunningham still makes his home in Houston. Eisele died in 1987. This past January, Cunningham—author of the book The All- American Boys (iBooks, Inc., 2003)—took time to answer a wide-ranging number of questions from LAUNCH Editor Mark Mayfield.


LAUNCH: You have an extensive educational background. How important was that in your work as an astronaut?

WALTER CUNNINGHAM: I would say that it was essential, in my case. I joined the Navy out of high school and managed to pass a two-year college equivalency test, went to flight training, and took my commission in the Marine Corps. I came to realize that I wouldn’t go very far in the Marine Corps without a college degree. So I transferred into the Marine Corps Active Reserve so I could go to college. I went to college the next eight years. Consequently, when NASA was selecting astronauts, I was just a year away from a Ph.D in physics, and I had a couple thousand hours in jet airplanes. If I had not gone back and gotten the education, there’s no way I would have been selected. And if I had stayed on active duty in the Marine Corps, they never would have submitted my name because I would not have passed the internal screening.

LAUNCH: So it all worked out well.

CUNNINGHAM: Yes. The only bad thing about it was that it carried a certain stigma, in that I was a physicist, which tended to have some of the other guys thinking of me as a “long hair,” if you will. My first couple of years at NASA were spent trying to whip them every time I could in an airplane, and whip them every time I could on the handball court. (laughter)

2LAUNCH: From what I’ve heard, there truly was major competition between astronauts, even to the point of driving the fastest car, flying the fastest jet, being first at everything.

CUNNINGHAM: Oh yes, I found that out right away. The truth of it is that I came to the Astronaut Office with a number of things against me. First off, I was not an academy graduate. Secondly, I was not a regular (military) officer. I was in the reserves, and I had a degree in physics, and I hadn’t been to test pilot school. I went in there with all those things against me. But I managed to scrape in, and from then on, I felt like I was one of the best they had.

LAUNCH: Frankly, though, you were a colonel in the Marine Corps and had been a Marine Corps pilot, so it’s not like you didn’t have any military experience, even though you were in the Reserve when NASA selected you.

CUNNINGHAM: At the time, I think NASA was trying to project more of a civilian image. They had selected Neil Armstrong and Elliot See. Elliot was from the same reserve base that I was. So when I came in they immediately classified me as a civilian, which made me the second civilian astronaut in space and also the second Marine in space, following John Glenn. But I maintained my Reserve affiliation. I was the only member of the astronaut corps that actually maintained a Reserve affiliation for all the time I was there. I wore the uniform a lot more than my buddies did.

LAUNCH: As I understand, even though most of them came in as active military, they didn’t leave that way.

CUNNINGHAM: That’s right. Some of them resigned their commissions in order to stay in the Astronaut Office. I don’t know anybody who did that, though, before getting at least twenty years in. Some of them just elected to transfer over and be a civilian.

LAUNCH: You, Wally Schirra, and Donn Eisele were the backup crew of Apollo 1.

CUNNINGHAM: There were or iginally two flights that were more or less the same, Apollo 1 and Apollo 2. Even in those days, I would have admit ted there was no reason to fly Apollo 2 unless Apollo 1 failed. The spacecraft were changing after those two flights, so Apollo 2 was a redundant mission. It was set up, I think, as an insurance flight to make sure we had a backup if something happened on Apollo 1. They cancelled Apollo 2, and since we were the only other crew with experience on the Block I spacecraft, we went immediately in as the backup to Gus (Grissom). That only lasted a couple of months before the fire.

LAUNCH: As a member of the backup crew, you obviously worked closely with the Apollo 1 crew in training. How tough was it at the time following the fire, and how tough is it still?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, actually, we were all fighter pilots. We had lost so many friends in airplane accidents over the years. It’s probably different than how you would think of it in civilian endeavors. We lost the prime crew, and more than anything, we were shocked that it happened on the ground. I’d say we adjusted quickly. It was still sad. They were good friends of ours. But we had lost so many good friends over the years. Outsiders would say we were kind of jaundiced about the whole thing. I don’t think so. I just think that fighter pilots have the ability to think in a different way. Throughout the space program, a number of astronauts got their chance to fly in space by virtue of someone else’s misfortune. It’s one of those things where we were glad we got the mission. You may feel a bit guilty about the way you got it, but you wouldn’t turn it down.

LAUNCH: I’m sure the Apollo 1 crew would have had the same “let’s move on” attitude if the tragedy had happened to someone else.

CUNNINGHAM: That’s exactly right. In my book, I pointed out that every time Jim Lovell turned around, he was benefiting from someone else’s disaster. (laughter) The truth is, we all made adjustments to what might be bad consequences long before they ever came up. So it’s an anti-climactic thing almost, when something bad happens. It’s probably worse on the families to lose friends in that arena than it is on us.

LAUNCH: On Apollo 7, you flew atop a Saturn 1B. Although the Saturn V (with the Moon missions) is probably better known to the general public, it is the 1B that seems to draw the most interest these days among model builders and space history enthusiasts. As it turns out, 15 men flew on Saturn 1B missions, counting your flight as well as the Skylab missions and the Apollo-Soyuz flight. But your crew was the first Apollo mission and the first to fly a Saturn 1B. What was that like?

CUNNINGHAM: Actually, I’ve never spent much time reminiscing about the past— never was one of those people who went back to high school after I graduated, that sort of thing. I’ve told others that if I didn’t have the pictures that we took on Apollo 7, it would be hard to recall. (laughter) Right now, I’m not sure I recall the real emotions while I was there, or if I’m recalling what I wrote about them very soon afterwards. It’s been nearly 40 years.

But I continued to stay involved and have written a lot of articles—and not always complimentary— about what NASA has been doing. In writing those articles, I’ve ended up with a much better historical context of what we did. Before all this, it was just a mission, and I didn’t give a damn if it was important or unimportant. It was nice to fly a first flight on a brand new vehicle, but it was just everyday work. Now, through my writing about it and from—as you say, the nostalgia for what I call the “golden age” of manned space flight— I see the historical significance of it. I also see the difference in context relative to what they do today. For instance, after Columbia (the disaster in 2003), they made a big fuss about flying the next shuttle mission. The people who flew it were perceived as heroes, in spite of the fact that NASA had flown 113 missions before. It was the same following Challenger; they made a big deal out of STS-26 Discovery going back to space. I don’t recall it being such a big deal when we went up on Apollo 7, even though they had never gotten one (an Apollo spacecraft) off the ground before, and the flight was the first one after the fire on the pad during the prior attempt.

So there’s a whole difference in the culture today and how they look at this. As several people have brought to my attention lately, the Apollo 7 mission has an almost forgotten place in space history.


LAUNCH: Yes, it was the first Apollo mission, the first time three people had flown together in space, and the first time anyone had flown on a Saturn rocket.

CUNNINGHAM: It was the most ambitious and most successful first flight ever of any new vehicle of any kind. Nobody will ever set out to fly an eleven-day mission for the very first flight again.

LAUNCH: Speaking of those 11 days, three guys together in one command module. Even though the Apollo spacecraft was a major upgrade from Gemini and Mercury, it still seems pretty small quarters for an 11-day mission. What’s it like to spend 11 days like that?

CUNNINGHAM: When you are all highly motivated, as we were, you can put up with almost anything for a reasonable length of time. It was a minor accomplishment compared to what Jim Lovell and Frank Borman did, staying inside of that Gemini spacecraft for 14 days. That blows my mind. In Apollo 7, we were able to unstrap and float around. Probably the biggest discomfort is just the psychological load of living with people that close for that length of time—especially if anyone decides to behave like a jerk.

LAUNCH: Right. I was going to ask you about Wally Schirra’s cold and those Actifed commercials that he did after the flight. How did that go?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I tried to set the record straight in my book about that. They asked me about (filming) the Actifed commercials. I had to tell them that I never had a cold. As I described in my book, Wally always had a “Bullmoose complex,” if you’re old enough to remember General Bullmoose in Li’l Abner… “What’s good enough for Bullmoose is good enough for the world.” Wally had a cold, and if Wally had a cold, everybody had a cold. Actually, Donn may have had a slight cold, but he wasn’t all that uncomfortable. I never did come down with a cold.

But for Wally it was a real discomfort and I’m sure it had a real impact, because your head feels full anyway in zero gravity. With a cold you’ve got all that stuff up in your sinus that’s not coming out. So that contributed to his irascibility, but it wasn’t a completely valid excuse in my opinion. It made it a bit miserable for several days, but by the fourth day or so, Wally was feeling good again. Wally was usually an easygoing guy, but he was kind of a pain in the ass during those four days. It’s a sore enough subject that, even now, sometimes when I see Wally, he will make some remark that is an attempt to justify his behavior. So I can tell it’s still on his mind. He’s still defending what I consider almost indefensible. And I say “almost” because there were things that Wally was right about, the television delay, for example.

So that caused some problems, caused some rough feelings. Because Wally was such a pain in the ass to the ground, I do believe it affected the rest of my career.

LAUNCH: I have to ask you, what is it like to splash down in a spacecraft in the ocean?

CUNNINGHAM: In our case, we hit like a ton of bricks and immediately turned over to Stable 2, which meant you were nearly upside down, hanging from your couch straps and looking at the sea rising and falling in your window and hoping that the spacecraft wasn’t leaking. You could get seasick in about 20 seconds in that situation. As soon as we turned over, I knew that Donn wasn’t going to be able to get down and connect the radio antenna. Every time we went out and did recovery drills, Donn would get seasick, so the next thing Wally would say was “Walt you go do it.” So I knew I was headed for the hold, if you will. As I recall (in the actual mission) I didn’t throw up. I think Donn did. We couldn’t get out of the craft anyway until it cooled down. We were upside down for about 12 minutes watching the water go up and down on the window. We came back and reported that it was a pretty hard splashdown.

I think that Apollo 8, when they came back, happened to knife into the wave just right. They didn’t turn over, and they said it was very smooth.


LAUNCH: So it truly mattered whether you caught the top of the wave, or you hit the bottom?

CUNNINGHAM: Yes. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with recovery at sea, but I’m one of those that strongly favors a winged vehicle and recovery on a runway.

LAUNCH: With Apollo 7, you guys paved the way for all the things that would come later.

CUNNINGHAM: Yes, and Apollo 9 is another one that is rather unsung. People today don’t even realize that it was the fifth Apollo mission that first landed on the Moon. It’s almost as if Apollo was a program to land on the Moon, and therefore, we went and landed on the Moon and then did it five more times. They don’t really have an appreciation of the way we worked up to it incrementally. Apollo 9 was a very important mission, and you don’t hear much about it. That’s because it was in Earth orbit.

LAUNCH: Yes, Apollo 9 was the first mission to actually test fly a Lunar Module.

CUNNINGHAM: Yes, it was the first time people were flying around in a space vehicle with no heat shield.

LAUNCH: What do you think of the Saturn 1B, and also your thoughts about Wernher von Braun and the guys who designed the rockets?

CUNNINGHAM: I’m a real fan of von Braun and his team. But I tell you, the man himself was amazing. I used to visit with him quite a bit during Skylab. He was personally interested. Huntsville had a big role in it. There was a lot of jealousy between Huntsville and JSC (Johnson Space Center in Houston). Von Braun was on top of it—and usually the guy at the top isn’t all that involved in details. But he was a brilliant guy, and I’m sure a lot of the things that went on with the Saturn 1B and the Saturn V were directly attributable to him.

The Saturn 1B was a marvelous rocket—a huge thing at the time. In fact at the time it flew, I believe it was the largest rocket we’d ever flown. Of course the Saturn V was larger and it was a marvelous machine.

5LAUNCH: What do you think of NASA’s new plans to go back to the Moon, as well as the latest announcement about a new permanent base?

CUNNINGHAM: In general, I think they have a good plan and some good hardware. I bemoan the fact that NASA keeps making a start and then switches to something else. You know they threw away the Saturn V to go to a shuttle, promising a 10-times improvement in safety, which I believe they achieved. I think the shuttle is so much safer than anything we had in Apollo. Now they’re talking about moving from the shuttle back to a single stick launch vehicle, and they talk about another factor of 10 in safety improvements. So by going from single stick to the shuttle and back to a single stick, they’ve supposedly improved safety by a factor of 100? You buy that? It doesn’t make sense.

I think that the new system will work just fine. It’s a good system. I don’t know how reusable it’s going to be. They’re still laboring with whether to recover on land or water, and how to get 10 times use out of a capsule. Of course they can put a whole lot more into the spacecraft now.

On Apollo, we only had 38 kilobytes of memory and 34 were not addressable. We only had four KBs that we could input. (laughter)

It (the Orion) will be a much- improved spacecraft. But I’ve looked at the mockup, and they’re talking about putting six people in it for a lunar mission? It’s going to be crowded.

LAUNCH: Would you fly in it?

CUNNINGHAM: I’d go in a heartbeat. One, I trust them. Secondly, the odds are so much better than they were in the old days. Our attitude about it is different. It’s ridiculous the way they talk about the risk of going to service the Hubble when 75 percent of all the missions we’ve ever flown went to similar orbits. They’re saying the Hubble orbit is too dangerous. It’s an attitudinal change. The biggest complaint I have is that we no longer acknowledge that space is always going to be dangerous. We do the best we can to reduce it, but we have to get on with the job.

LAUNCH: It seems there was just more courage in policy back in the ‘60s and ‘70s than there is now.

CUNNINGHAM: No question about it. I mean, the Chris Krafts, the Gene Krantzs, the Gerry Griffins, the engineers, Max Faget, all of those folks had a different attitude, and there was a real good reason why they did. They all came out of the X-Plane experience. Everybody understood that when we were breaking the sound barrier—going higher, farther, faster—that there was a price to pay. And you had to pay that price to complete the project. These people came in with a healthy, can-do attitude. And now we have people who are promoted through the system, who have never done anything else. They don’t understand it.

LAUNCH: There has been quite a bit of criticism over the fact that NASA is returning to the Moon instead of going directly to Mars. Of course, it would take years and years to successfully plan and test for a Mars mission, but it’s also going to take many years to get back to the Moon. What do you think about their plans?

CUNNINGHAM: It’s a bunch of nonsense. I know there are astronauts who support going back to the Moon before we go to Mars. Gene Cernan, for example. I have always called the plan to return to the Moon before going on to Mars as “Mars Light.” It is supported by people who don’t want to be on record as against space exploration, but they don’t want to support going to Mars. They rationalize and justify the Moon trip as a way to help you get to Mars. Well, we didn’t have a place to stop off when we went to the Moon in the first place, and we don’t need one now to go to Mars.

Mars is tough, tougher. But it’s time to get on with the job and do it. They talk about setting up a lunar base at the poles? Here’s an organization that thinks it’s too risky to fly out and service the Hubble, and you say they’re going to surrender their free-return trajectories to the Moon by going into Polar orbit and things like that? There are so many inconsistencies here. I can think of a lot cheaper ways of creating fuel and materials than trying to construct a plant on the Moon and bring it back. It doesn’t make a lot of economic sense. Sure, they can develop the technique, but in the long run, it’s just a much more expensive and risk-averse way of going to Mars.

LAUNCH: And of course it also means delaying any mission to Mars even further, since they don’t even plan to land on the Moon before 2020.

CUNNINGHAM: Yes, isn’t that interesting? We did it the first time in nine years, even after taking 21 months off following the Apollo 1 fire. Now they’re talking about doing it—when it was announced two years ago—in 16 years, when we’ve already done it before.

LAUNCH: What do you think of these new private, commercial space programs like the one Richard Branson has announced with Virgin Galactic? Branson, for instance, is promising to ferry passengers on suborbital spaceflights by 2010. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has also announced similar plans with his Blue Origin project.

CUNNINGHAM: I’m glad we have got a lot of space aficionados out there trying to do this. But up until two years ago, when I was chairman of the Texas Aerospace Commission, I visited all of the so-called commercial space enterprises because we were interested in establishing a spaceport in Texas. Only one of them looked halfway promising to me, and that’s not one that’s being pursued. Bezos hadn’t really had his program going yet.

I don’t want to discourage enthusiasm. But they have only begun to scratch the surface of flying a suborbital mission. I’m tremendously impressed with Spaceship One and the engineering, and what they did is unique. But, there’s a world of difference between Mach 3 and Mach 25. That’s where all the hard work is—1,000 degrees heating versus 3,000 degrees.

For example, I wouldn’t have minded working on Spaceship One and being a test pilot to fly it. But I’m not sure I’d like to go sit in the back of it and try to be a passenger. And now Branson… I’ve gotta hand it to him. The guy’s entrepreneurial, but what’s going to happen one of these days when one of these things crashes and they lose a lot of people? People will start realizing that maybe space is not a place to screw around with—not for a long time. It is always going to be very expensive to go into orbit, and it is always going to be very risky to go into orbit.

I’ve had people rationalize and say, well I have a right to risk my ass like you did. But they don’t understand. I didn’t fly into space to risk my ass. I did it to help move the technology forward. I did it because there was a frontier out there that needed to be broken and I had the qualifications to do it. I did it for my country. I understood all the risks. That’s a big difference.

So, I don’t know what to say about it. I encourage the spirit, but I think it’s a long way away from being a sensible paying business.

LAUNCH: As you know, the Russian Federal Space Agency is charging “space tourists” $20 million for trips aboard a Soyuz to the International Space Station. And often the media has labeled these people astronauts. What do you think?

CUNNINGHAM: More and more real astronauts are concerned about the fact that people who pay $20 million, more or less, are being referred to as astronauts. They’re also concerned about Richard Branson’s directive to travel agents and so forth to basically sell seats to “become an astronaut.” It opens up the whole question of what people should be called, but “astronaut” was not a title derived just because somebody flew in space. It had to do with a job, and cosmonauts were the same way. And over the years, both Russia and the United States have tended to water that down a little bit by taking people up who are not what I would call working astronauts and yet allowing them to refer to themselves that way. It would seem to me that any man or woman with a sense of honor would tend to reject that. I see two problems: one, the media pretty much unanimously goes along with the nonsense and calls them astronauts; and secondly, the passengers themselves don’t bother to correct that silliness.

Somewhere along the line the media needs to wake up and begin to distinguish between a professional astronaut with his/ her years and years of training and paying tourists who have no idea what the job really entails. You can’t take somebody for three months or six months and train them to be an astronaut. I spent my fifth anniversary (as an astronaut) in space, and I had been on a crew, in training, for three years in that time.

If somebody flies on an airliner, they don’t land and declare themselves a pilot.

LAUNCH: What are you up to these days?

CUNNINGHAM: I’m mostly spending time taking care of my own affairs, doing a bit of writing. I’m going through research for another book. I’m thinking of calling it “Death by PC.” It’s developed along the lines of how political correctness, diversity, and multi-culturalism are killing our country.

I write and speak. I could use a few more speaking engagements, but when somebody wants an astronaut, even if it’s an ancient astronaut, they don’t give a damn what kind of speech it is. They want to see a guy that went to the Moon. There is a pecking order there that eventually makes its way down to me. (laughter)