December 06, 2010
ASTRONAUT HAD ROCKET – WILL TRAVEL
WHEN Walter Cunningham is invited to tell people his views on our Planet, he does not bore them with his thoughts on politics, religion, climate change or other debatable subjects.
Rather he has them in awe of his accounts – with accompanying extraordinary photographs – of the world as he's actually seen it.
Because, in 1968 Walter Cunningham was pilot of the Apollo 7 space craft, America's first manned space flight of the Apollo Program, and forerunner of America landing a man on the moon just eight months later.
It gave him a perfect view of the world as a rare few others had seen it – from 300km in space. With two companions, he circled the globe at an extraordinary 28,000km per hour.
Within the confines of a tiny 5.9 cubic metres cone for eleven days, the trio lived on forgettable freeze-dried meals, worked constantly on carefully-controlled tests of every spacecraft system, and occasionally snatched views of the world below. At the speed they were travelling, "daylight" lasted just 45-minutes, and "nights" were equally short.
But despite the constraints of their spacecraft, Walter still believes he and his two companions had the world's most envied jobs. "As President Kennedy said: 'We are doing this (going to the Moon) not because it is easy, but because it is hard,'" Walter recalls, adding: "My generation lived in an era in which we could look beyond the moon, and reach for the stars."
Today he's still straddling the world, but now it's by jet plane and luxury cruise ships to talk to audiences as diverse as professional, academic and social groups, and laid-back holidaymakers on some of the world's most exclusive cruise ships.
And yes he admits to enjoying the spaciousness of the pointy-end of the plane when he travels now, the comforts of 5-star hotels and cruise ships, and the companionship of plenty of people to talk to, compared with his confines aboard Apollo 7.
"Although it really wasn't that cramped," he says. "After we slipped off our space suits, and because of the weightlessness in space, we could just float around inside the spacecraft. Try that as a break from the routine of a pokey office in Downtown New York!"
And during his lectures, Walter Cunningham covers NASA's "Golden Age" of space exploration, America and Russia's space relations – and touches on the question most of us would like the answer to: "Could there be intelligent life out there?"
And how he got into space travel. "I logged 4,500 hours as a Marine Corps fighter pilot, and was pursuing a doctorate in physics before joining the NASA space program. Shortly after I was chosen for the back-up crew for Apollo 1," he told us aboard boutique motor-cruiser SeaDream I on a recent voyage from Spain across the Atlantic to the Caribbean last month.
The Apollo 1 spacecraft caught fire on its launch paid in 1967 and all three crewmembers died in about 20 seconds. The following year, on October 11 1968, with Mission Commander Walter M. Schirra and fellow Pilot Donn F. Eisele, Walter Cunningham blasted into space aboard Apollo 7 from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre.
In his lectures he shares his thoughts as the massive Saturn1B rocket hurtled beyond earth, the "separation" of the tiny cone-shaped Command Module, and life aboard that little cone for its three occupants over the next eleven days.
Their's and many other photographs taken from space captivate his audiences: the world's most active volcanoes, largest glaciers, biggest ice-bergs, greatest sea straits, the Great Barrier Reef and American hurricanes, the Pyramids, New York City – and by contrast, tiny Kitty Hawk sandy beach where the Wright Brothers made their first flight – as never seen before.
"Especially warming to us was Australia's Perth, whose residents turned all their lights on as we passed over," Walter recalls.
Texas-based, he holds the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, is a Member of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, travels the world lecturing and speaking, has written a book The All-American Boys about his space exploits, hosts a radio talk show – and was awarded an Emmy for his role in the first live TV broadcast from space.
If you're interested in talking to him about being a guest presenter, see www.waltercunningham.com
 THE Apollo 7 crew: Walter Cunningham is on the left, with fellow Pilot Donn Eisele and Mission Commander Walter Schirra.
 THE Strait of Gibraltar as seen from space – it's the world's busiest shipping lane linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.
 RED silt wash through the Betsiboka River Delta in Madagascar, the result of massive deforestation that's left little of the natural forests standing.
 THE Bosphorous separating Europe and Asia as seen from space.
 A SPACE view of Egypt's Great Pyramids.
Photos: Courtesy of NASA and Walter Cunningham