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Start “Of all the places up there, I only consider a priority going back to the Moon”
17 July 2019

“Of all the places up there, I only consider a priority going back to the Moon”

Estimated reading time Time 9 to read

INTERVIEW WITH WALTER CUNNINGHAM, APOLLO 7 ASTRONAUT

  • “We were fighter pilots, we were all aware that something could happen just like that, and we’d be gone”
  • “People who talk about going to Mars today are not experts in the space industry, they’re politicians”
  • “Those who don’t believe in the Moon landing are the same people who think that our planet Earth is flat”
  • “I go out on a limb if I say we’ll have a manned mission to Mars 50 years from now”

Fifty years ago, the space race reached its climax when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the Moon—but the Apollo 11 mission only cruised to stardom in the wake of the four successful manned flights that preceded it. American pilot Walter Cunningham (Creston, Iowa, 1932) was there at the beginning of it all. He was part of the crew who replaced the original Apollo 1 astronauts, those who died during a test when a fire broke out at the launch-pad.

Walter Cunningham recently participated in the “Objective the Moon” event, organized by OpenMind, El Páis and Materia on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the arrival on the Moon. Credit: Santi Burgos/EL PAÍS

In 1968, together with commander Wally Schirra and fellow pilot Donn Eisele, Cunningham flew Apollo 7, an 11-day Earth-orbit mission that would set the scene for the journeys to come. It was the first crewed flight of the Apollo programme, designed to test all the updated ship components in advance of the trip to the Moon. Now, aged 87, Cunningham looks back at half a century of space exploration, then forward to plans of revisiting the Moon and, eventually, setting foot on Mars.

When did you find out about the Apollo 1 accident?

The Apollo 1 crew was formed by Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. We were the backup crew: that was Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and me. We were in Florida for about three months together, doing all the same kind of training. The day before the accident, actually, we had performed the same tests inside the cockpit, except that we didn’t close the hatch. So on the day, Wally, Donn and I were waiting—this was a Friday afternoon, we had decided that we were going to try to wait and to fly back to Houston together.

At about four o’clock I think it was, they were still having problems in that spacecraft. They had closed the hatch and pressurized it, but they were having trouble with getting the audio to work as well as other problems we hadn’t anticipated. So Wally, Donn and I finally decided we were going to fly back home. It’s about an hour and a half to two hours from Florida back to Houston, Texas. I remember we flew back in formation, which sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t, and as we pulled in to park, the deputy head of the flying group was there. It was unusaul to see him there, so we thought something may have happened… we didn’t know what. We walked with him, went up to his office, and he started telling us about what happened, the fire: 18 seconds and they were gone. We felt fortunate that we had not had to perform that precise test because it would have happened to us too.

Were you afraid of stepping into their shoes?

Something that the public at large today has a hard time understanding, and part of it is because our society today has changed, is that we were always aware of the risk. We were all pilots, we were all aware that something could happen just like that, and we’d be gone. We were good enough to avoid that happening to most of us. Yes, it could have happened to us, but we knew that we were going to fix anything that could have contributed to the Apollo 1 accident.

You just accept the risks. We didn’t spend our lives being afraid of unexpected events. And yet the public today, always asks me: “Were you afraid?”

The Apollo 7 prime crew: Donn F. Eisele, Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Walter Cunningham. Credit: NASA

You may not have been afraid of death, but perhaps of failure? Suddenly there was a lot more expectation: you became the crew of the first manned Apollo mission.

Yes, two weeks after they had died in the fire, we became the prime crew. We were now in the first run, and we had to fix that spacecraft. We tried to make sure that the spacecraft was good and safe. Nineteen or twenty or months later, we lifted off.

The name of the mission changed later—we didn’t really think of their death as Apollo 1, because the numbers kept track of the manned and unmanned missions. We were the seventh of all those missions. And we wanted to be a success, we were going to do eveything it took to suceed. If anyone looks back today, they’ll find that Apollo 7, to this day, was the longest and most ambitious first flight of any new flying machine in history. It was 101% successful.

Do people remember your mission, Apollo 7, when they talk about the Moon race today?

When you talk about Apollo today, people talk about Apollo 11: man landed on the Moon. They may consider Apollo 8 because it was the first time we left the Earth’s gravity and went around the Moon. They might think of Apollo 13, because a movie was made about it later. But no-one remembers the other flights, and particularly flights Apollo 7 and Apollo 9 are hardly ever mentioned. The reason behind this is that they were development missions, to try to make sure that the equipment was safe enough to send people to the Moon. They weren’t as exciting as the other ones, because we were right here on the Earth’s orbit.

You did the first television broadcast from space. Did you have many followers at the time?

Well, the fact that we did live TV for the first time on Apollo 7 did stick with a lot of people. Our commander, Wally Schirra, was against it because he thought filming would distract us. But after started, we enjoyed it, and the public could see that. The quality in those days was not all that good, but a short while after we got back, we got notified that we had won an Emmy for the first live TV broadcast from space. I remember Wally Schirra and I thought: “We could fly out to Los Angeles and spend a good weekend out there”. But NASA said nah.

NASA didn’t let you collect your Emmy Award?

We didn’t even get to go and get it. A couple of weeks later it was shipped in a box. So it was not that big a deal to NASA. Later, the Apollo 9 crew got one, too. It was nice getting an Emmy Award: I’ve got it sitting in my lobby today, and once every five or six years somebody asks about it.

Walter Cunningham working inside the Apollo 7 Command Module. Credit: NASA

During the Apollo 7 mission, your commander had a cold with blocked sinuses, so you refused to wear your helmets during reentry. Was that mutiny?

Well, I think that’s the way management saw it. We didn’t worry too much about it—we wanted to make sure Wally Schirra’s eardrums didn’t bust. I can remember that everyone on the ground made a real big case out of it. And it’s funny because they always want to minimize risks, and nevertheless, during the following missions after ours, they didn’t use their helmets. They discovered that it was safe enough not to wear them and much more confortable.

In your book, The All-American Boys, you also wrote about the difficulties of defecating in space. Was this a new subject for astronauts at the time?

Well, I wrote that article because it was really the first time that we had been able to do that. We floated around most of the time, and people look at the pictures and think there’s a lot of room in there—well, there wasn’t enough. We held off as much as we could on things like that. Unfortunately, after about two or three days, I was the first one who couldn’t hold out any longer.

I’m not going to go into any detail but, the first time, it took me over one hour. I don’t think anyone did it in under an hour because we were floating around. You’ve got to try to make sure you don’t make a mess, and you especially don’t want that mess to get spread around the cockpit. The same happens if someone throws up (that happened a couple of times in other missions, but not in ours). But that’s the reason I wrote that article in The All-American Boys: it was not written for that book, it was written when we were flying and we wanted to make sure everybody else knew what the pluses and minuses were. I guess I will read it again one of these days and see if I said too much. Later on, another five Apollo missions landed on the Moon and during all of them, something was said or written about this subject, because it was really one of the toughest things for us.

There is no longer the urgency or the clear political motivation of the 60s’ Moon race. What needs to happen for the next great leap in space exploration?

I think the public at large today is overly optimistic about what we can do out there in space. Most of the people who talk about going to Mars today are not experts in the space industry, they’re politicians. It’s been 50 years since the first Moon landinglanding on Mars is going to take much longer than people think. You know, Elon Musk talks about taking 10,000 people there in 2024, or something like that… For us, that’s just ridiculous.

Walter Cunningham during his speech at the “Objective the Moon” event. Credit: Santi Burgos/EL PAÍS

Did you always think it was ridiculous?

Well, most of the people who are skeptical of what Elon Musk is doing, have a better opinion of him today than we did five or more years ago. I have to tell you, I was very pessimistic but my opinión changed when they recovered that stage one of the Falcon 9 reusable rocket booster. We still don’t know how these projects will be financed and I’m still, I wouldn’t say skeptical, but not very sure if it’s cost-effective. It does seem to be cost-effective, and SpaceX has done several times already. And even my friends from the times of Apollo and who are still working… I think we’re all really impressed that they managed to recover that booster.

How has space exploration benefited from international cooperation?

Well, public opinion on that subject has changed. Back in our days, it was competition. Even when we started working with the Russians and were supposed to cooperate, but they were never fully cooperative. And now we are completely dependent, even to put someone in orbit. But the Russians have always had their own programs and they’ve been, in my opinion, pretty successful as well. They’ve lost a few spacecraft, too, but I think they’re doing pretty good.

Do manned missions still make sense, if robots can do long-term space science more cost-effectively than humans?

You bring up a very good point, because I think we ought to continue to think in the long-term, and space exploration could be can be unmanned, with robots. Of all the places up there that we could go anytime soon, I only consider a priority going back to the Moon.

But there are a lot of stories about what to do on the Moon today that are right at the very edge of what is possible, like “go up there, to the north pole or the south pole, create fuel”, and things like that. The public isn’t aware of how difficult it would be: it’s not the same as getting a sample and bringing it home.. But they have talked about looking for fuel (on the Moon) to help us get to Mars. Well, it’s going to take a long time before we’re able to produce fuel, load it on a spacecraft and take off.

Apollo 7’s liftoff. Credit: NASA

What do you say to people who don’t believe the Moon landing ever happened?

You know, it’s hard for me to deal with those who doubt that we landed on the Moon. Of all the groups I have ever been with, I think I’ve only heard something about that once. But supposedly, eight or ten percent of the population thinks that we never really went to the Moon. I’ve never run across that eight or ten percent. I think the people making that claim are only those who have never been intelligent enough to understand what goes on out there. And that also tells me that we’re never going to be able to cut that out completely. Those are the same people who think that our planet Earth is flat, you know?

What are your hopes for the next era of space exploration, as trips begin to be measured in months, and perhaps years instead of days?

I’ve never really spent a lot of time thinking about how it will be when we send people to other planets. I’m a physicist, and I know that it’s a long shot. When I think of the propbabnilities of doing some of the things they are talking about, landing on Mars and then taking off from Mars… people have no idea of the increase of propulsión needed. What we’re hearing is the natural reaction from the public as time goes on. We went to the Moon, nobody’s terribly excited about the Moon anymore, so they say: “Why can’t we just, you know, go to Mars, or Venus or both?”.

You don’t think we should go to Mars?

I’m either a realist, or a pessimist. Because I’m a physicist, I believe in doing that, sometime, but I don’t think it’s going to be something that helps us so much as it changes the public perception [of space exploration]. However, I am strongly in favor of development: we have to develop technology that makes it possible. Today, 50 years after we landed on the Moon, we are using the technology we developed at that time in many different ways. That technology has become a whole lot more useful. At that time, we would have never thought of some of those applications. So we’re benefiting a lot from it.

When do you envision we will achieve a manned mission to Mars?

Well, we’re not going to do it while I’m still here [laughs]. I go out on a limb, if I say 50 years from now. And the thing is that we’ve been doing a lot of unmanned exploration of Mars—we didn’t have that kind of information about the Moon. We know so much more about Mars and the surface of Mars today, then we knew about the Moon and the surface and the Moon at that time. For this reason I think that the fact that we’re learning so much about Mars thanks to unmanned exploration is one of the reasons why the decision to send people there will take longer.

Bruno Martin

@TurbanMinor

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