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NASA astronaut Walt Cunningham remembers mission that made Apollo 11 possible

Cunningham was on board the first Apollo mission to carry a crew into space, Apollo 7.

HOUSTON — As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a human first setting foot on the moon, we should also take note of those those behind the scenes. 

They never walked on the moon, but they were pioneers who made it possible.

Walt Cunningham is one of those pioneers. Cunningham was on board the first Apollo mission to carry a crew into space, Apollo 7.

“Our focus on that countdown was to really do a good job with the space craft," says Cunningham.

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Apollo 7 was critical for the space program. It was the first manned flight to be attempted since NASA's first major tragedy 21 months before. 

The fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

NASA was counting on Apollo 7 to get them back on track in its quest for the moon.

"We knew that we had to do well, and we thought we could do anything that was necessary, so we weren't focused on not being killed like our crew before us," says Cunningham.

He was part of a three-man crew that included Don Eisele and Commander Wally Schirra. Their mission was to test the Apollo command and service module in Low Earth Orbit.

Adding to their challenges, Schirra had a head cold, which can be bad on Earth, but even worse in the pressure of a sealed capsule in space. Cunningham says Schirra was congested and perhaps cranky, butting heads with Mission Control during the mission.

"Back in those days in the space program when it was fresh and new and young, there was competition going on between mission control and the crews," says Cunningham.

Despite that, the crew got its work done. Including the first live television broadcast from space. For that, Cunningham was given an Emmy Award.

"Hah, we were shocked. To us, it was just another piece of duty, a job, what we were doing," says Cunningham.

And what a job they did on Apollo 7.

"It was the longest, the most ambitious, the most successful first test flight of any new flying machine ever," says Cunningham.

Less than a year later, Apollo 11 would realize the dream in full, and Neil Armstrong would be the first man to step foot on the lunar surface.

What did Cunningham think when he saw Armstrong make history?

“My thought was, oh, I wish that was me, but by that time I figured the way politics were going, that was not a fair concern for me," says Cunningham.

Cunningham would never walk on the moon, but he's thankful he had a major role in getting us there.

Get full coverage of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing.

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