50 years ago Apollo 7 was named a 101% successful mission. It completed every objective and mission control even sent more items for the checklist as they progressed ahead of schedule. Apollo 7 was also the first proceeding manned mission after the tragic Apollo 1 fire which took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. You may not realize that the Apollo 7 crew was actually the backup crew to Grissom's Apollo 1 crew and that they performed the same capsule test the afternoon before the tragedy with the distinction that it was plugs-in with the hatch open.
As I prepared to interview an Apollo astronaut I wrestled with my inner space nerd about how to approach this task. What do I ask an astronaut? What do I ask a person who played a role in one of mankind's greatest achievements up to this point in our history? I really wanted to dive into some personal questions about his time in the early space program. NASA culture in the 1960s was at the top of the list and of course, I would need to inquire about his flown Speedmaster. I started to think about my kids as I began to jot down some ideas. My kids will study the moon landing in school one day and I'm about to have an opportunity to speak with one of the astronauts. What should I ask on their behalf? Walter Cunningham is a businessman, physicist, Marine Corps fighter pilot, author, and astronaut. Below you'll find out what developed in our conversation.
Mr. Cunningham, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, I'll kick right in if that's ok.So you were 36 when you flew on Apollo 7, is that right? And 31 when you joined NASA?
I was 32 when I joined NASA.
Was it ever hard to compute the magnitude of the responsibility that was being given to you?
(Laughter) No, it was not. I was not the youngest one at the time. There were 2 or 3 others that were selected at the same time I was that were a year or 2 years younger than me. There was no problem.
It seems astronauts are a little older today and it's inspiring to see that astronauts in the 1960's were younger and still managed to get everything done.
There's no question about the change in the astronaut corps. You don't have to be a fighter pilot or test pilot today. There are a lot of scientists. Some of our guys probably wouldn't make it today. It has switched to what you can do operating machines that have already been up there and tested and all that kind of stuff.
Was it ever hard to be present with what was happening at the time? I know you stayed quite busy day to day and were on the road 200 days a year for a couple of years there, but was it hard to be present and actually let sink in what you were being a part of.
(Laughter) You're probably not going to want to believe my answers. No, it wasn't. I was a physicist when I joined them and I was a Marine Corps fighter pilot. I had a fair amount of experience, quite a bit of experience. I remember feeling that it was competitive and there was also…some of us detected…maybe everybody, I don't know I never talked about it…that detected your relationship…your social relationship might have a factor in it…or maybe some of the politics might be involved too. But I think everybody pretty much focused on what their strength was and I just did my best at whatever I did. I don't ever remember feeling deficient...a couple times I thought maybe they were favoring somebody else over me for some reason which I didn't know…but other than that it was just a general competitive spot and the attitude that people had…our society in those days…is a different attitude as our society as a whole has today in general.