Walter Cunningham’s Legacy Still Lives On Through Venice High

Zora Hollie, Reporter

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Earlier this year, Walter Cunningham ’50, an Apollo 7 astronaut, died on January 3, 2023 at 90-years-old. 

Born on March 16, 1932 in Creston, IA, Cunningham and his family moved to Venice when he was young. He graduated from Venice High and went on to receive a master’s degree in physics at UCLA.

Science teacher Josh Alexander, who teaches Honors Physics here, was interested in Cunningham after hearing about his death. 

“To get an advanced degree in physics is crazy hard. It’s a lot of really heavy math. I think it’s neat that somebody was able to do that,” he said. 

But before attending UCLA, Cunningham enlisted in the United States Navy at 19. He served on active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps until 1956, flying 54 missions as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. 

Cunningham joined NASA’s third astronaut class in 1963, and was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 7, an 11-day flight that launched on October 11, 1968. 

“All those missions of orbiting the Earth were all for testing out the systems, trying to make things last longer so that you could actually survive that whole trip to the moon,” Alexander said. 

In fact, the crew of Apollo 7 completed several crucial tasks during the mission– including testing docking maneuvers, igniting the service module engine, and providing the first live television transmission of onboard activities. Many of these tasks helped pave the way for the moon-landing.

“He was a part of doing something that people hadn’t done before,” Alexander said. 

The president and founder of Venice’s Astronomy Club, senior Nela Schieneman, was amazed to learn about Cunningham’s contributions after his death.

“His specific mission was the first manned mission into space, which was a big leap for the program NASA was doing at the time,” Schieneman said. 

As Schieneman notes, the study of astronomy is not really embedded in any of the classes offered at Venice, which makes alumni like Cunningham even more valuable. 

“It’s really important that we have some representation of this scientific field, especially because it’s growing exponentially right now,” Schieneman said. 

Although Cunningham can serve as an inspiration for students interested in astronomy, he also can inspire all Venice students. Cunningham received numerous awards for his work, including the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, several Hall of Fame inductions, and even an Emmy. 

“It’s cool to know that somebody who was here made it there. It’s not an easy thing to do,” Alexander said.