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Opinion Buzz Aldrin: Without Walt Cunningham, there would be no moon landing

Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham, salutes prior to the Alliance of American Football game in Orlando between the Orlando Apollos and the Atlanta Legends on Feb. 9, 2019. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
3 min

Buzz Aldrin was lunar module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission.

Without Walt Cunningham, we would not have walked on the moon. Subsequently, we never would have beaten the Soviets and begun the process to end the Cold War.

He knew it. I knew it. And America should know it, too.

Walt, who died last week at the age of 90, was the lunar module pilot for the Apollo 7, the first successful manned operation of the Apollo missions. Without that “perfect mission,” our flight to the moon never would have happened.

He was a lifetime friend. Selected into the third class of NASA astronauts with me in 1963, Walt was part of the backup crew for Apollo 1, along with Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele. When Apollo 1’s crew died tragically in a launchpad fire in January 1967, the backup crew became prime.

It might be hard for people to grasp the pressure under which Walt and that Apollo 7 crew operated. The prior crew never reached space. The American public was restless, and Apollo 7 in some ways was a “go/no go” mission. During the 11-day flight in 1968, the crew had to test and adjust hundreds of systems — everything from life support, engines and communications to basic electrical hardware — on a spacecraft never flown before. The Soviets were hard on our tail. The mission had to be perfect — and it was.

Walt always stepped up. He was part of the Apollo 1 accident review board and helped redesign the Apollo capsule. Having tested the capsule systems the day before the tragedy, he was in a special position to assess the platform. He suggested design changes, including rethinking the environmental control systems and re-engineering the spacecraft for safety. That ensured success for all subsequent Apollo missions.

If the review board had gotten it wrong, we would probably have had a catastrophic event in space — long before we got to the moon.

Each of us got to the program in a different way. Mine was the U.S. Military Academy; Walt’s was studying physics, engineering and working hard. His patience, patriotism, courage and love of flying made him a natural fighter pilot and astronaut.

We worked well together. Together, along with Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, we sat in front of congressional oversight committees in the 1990s to share a common view: America cannot afford to lose our leadership edge in space. Human exploration is essential. We must return to the moon, and then go farther.

Finally, on an individual level, Walt knew something about exceptionalism. He flew 54 combat fighter missions in Korea, logged more than 4,500 hours in 40 different planes and spent 263 hours in space.

Less well known might be Walt’s wry wit, candor and depth. In a world of egos, Walt always had his in check. Walt’s other hallmark was gratitude, for everything — for the chance to fly for the Marines, for becoming an Apollo astronaut and for being able to serve the nation. He and his wife, Dot Cunningham, made it a point to be at mission anniversaries, including the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019, held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. I was grateful for that.

Bottom line: We have lost a real treasure in Walt. Americans should give him thanks.