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Cunningham, R. Walter “Walt”

Enshrined 2018 1932-

Ronnie Walter “Walt” Cunningham was born on March 16, 1932, growing up in southern California. Cunningham, the oldest of five, was driven from a young age. He got his first job delivering newspapers and, inspired by the World War II movie, “Navy Hell Divers”, he immediately joined the Navy after graduating high school. In 1952, he passed a two-year college equivalency test and earned a NavCad in Pensacola. The next year, Cunningham was commissioned a United States Marine Corp Aviator and was one of the first 2nd Lts. assigned to All-Weather Jet Night Fighters (F3D). In 1954, Cunningham was sent to Korea and VMF-513, the last missioned Marine Squadron.  Cunningham flew 54 missions with VMF-513, over 60 percent of which were at night and in bad weather. On return to the U.S., Cunningham moved into traditional squadrons flying a variety of fighters including the T-33, F9F6, F9F8, A4D, FJ-4 and C-45.

In 1956, he transferred into Marine Reserve squadrons to attend college at UCLA. Cunningham received his B.S. with honors in 1960, and his M.A. with distinction in 1961, both in physics. While flying with the reserves, he worked multiple jobs and completed all requirements for a Ph.D. in physics except his thesis. For three years he worked as a scientist for the RAND Corporation focusing on defense against submarine launched ballistic missiles and problems with the magnetosphere.

In 1963 Walt Cunningham was selected by NASA in the third group of astronauts. He served on the Apollo 1 mission’s backup crew.  After Apollo 1’s tragic pad fire, Cunningham served on the Fire Investigation Board. Twenty-one months after the tragedy, Cunningham flew the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, where he became the second Marine Corps Pilot to fly in space.

In October 1968, Apollo 7 orbited the earth for 11 days, simulating lunar orbit rendezvous and tested the performance of all spacecraft systems including the life support, propulsion, guidance and control systems. Apollo 7 was the first 3-man spacecraft, the first manned Saturn rocket flight and set a record for the largest payload ever placed in orbit. They also received an Emmy for the first live television from space.

Following Apollo 7, Cunningham was made Chief of the Skylab Branch of the Astronaut Office; working on the design and development of five manned space modules, two different launch vehicles, and 65 major onboard scientific experiments.  All the while, Cunningham maintained currency in jet aircraft, helicopters and served in the Marine Corps Reserve as Air Liaison Officer with the local infantry battalion. In 1976, after 23 years in active and reserve assignments, Cunningham retired as Colonel, USMCR.

Following NASA, Cunningham, fulfilled an appointment by the Texas governor as the Chairman of the Texas Aerospace Commission. Cunningham also served for eight years with the Advisory Panel for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, reviewing and approving medical experiments to be flown on the International Space Station. Additionally, Cunningham is the author of many books including “The All-American Boys,” which is considered one of the best books ever written on the space program.

During his career, Cunningham has received numerous awards and recognitions including the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, Navy Astronaut Wings, Member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Haley Astronautics Award; San Diego Air and Space Museum Hall of Fall, Houston Hall of Fame, International Space Hall of Fame; and the Astronaut Hall of Fame.