Video: See our full interview with Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham
Around NASA and its contractors, the phrase "Return to Flight" carries special meaning. It's used very seriously in very specific circumstances: a "Return to Flight" mission is a resumption of normal scheduled missions after an anomaly or accident. Most recently, the phrase was used to refer to the 2005 STS-114 and STS-121 shuttle flights, which were the first missions to take flight from the Kennedy Space Center following the destruction of Columbia in early 2003. Prior to that, STS-26 was the "Return to Flight" mission in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster in 1986.
But the big granddaddy of Returns to Flight was Apollo 7 in October 1968. Mindful of Kennedy's end-of-decade deadline for a lunar landing, NASA's engineers and astronauts had to fight through a complex admixture of both cautiousness and eagerness—they needed to get back into space as soon as possible, but they also needed to make sure they weren't going to kill anyone else. The job of commanding Apollo 7 landed on Mercury veteran Walter "Wally" Schirra and his rookie crew—Donn Eisele and Ronnie Walter Cunningham.
The mission was a success, but none of the three astronauts ever flew again—reportedly as retaliation for some shenanigans during the flight (mission commander Schirra was suffering a head cold during the mission, and irritability from that coupled with stress over the importance of completing the mission safely led to some friction between Schirra and NASA management). Lunar Module Pilot Walt Cunningham moved on to a management role at NASA himself, overseeing the Skylab section of the Flight Crew Directorate.
Cunningham was a major interviewee for "The Greatest Leap," our Apollo retrospective, and his insight and commentary on the program in general and the Apollo 1 fire in particular were invaluable to the project. We are proud to present his unredacted interview, chock-full of stories and space stuff that didn't quite make it into the main documentary.
Listing image by NASA