Cunningham was born in Creston, Iowa on March 16, 1932. He graduated from Venice High School in Venice, California.
After high school, Cunningham joined the U.S. Navy in 1951, and began flight training in 1952. He served on active duty as a fighter pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1953 until 1956, flying 54 missions as a night fighter pilot in Korea. From 1956 to 1975 he served in the Marine Corps Reserve program, ultimately retiring at the rank of Colonel.
Cunningham received his B.A. with honors in 1960, and his M.A. with distinction in 1961, both in physics, from the University of California, Los Angeles. He completed all requirements save for the dissertation for a Ph.D. in physics at UCLA during his time at RAND Corporation, where he spent three years prior his NASA selection.
In October 1963, Cunningham was one of the third group of astronauts selected by NASA. On October 11, 1968, he occupied the Lunar Module Pilot seat for the eleven-day flight of Apollo 7. Although the flight carried no Lunar Module, Cunningham was kept busy with the myriad system tests aboard this first launch of a manned Apollo mission. The crew successfully completed eight tests, including service module engine ignition and measuring the accuracy of the spacecraft systems. Because Schirra, Cunningham, and Eisele ran afoul of NASA management during the flight, none of them were assigned to future missions. He then worked in a management role for Skylab and left NASA in 1971.
He has accumulated more than 4,500 hours of flying time, including more than 3,400 in jet aircraft and 263 hours in space.
In 1974, Cunningham graduated from Harvard Business School's Advanced Management Program and later worked as a businessman and investor in a number of private ventures.
In 1977, he published The All-American Boys, a reminiscence of his astronaut days. He was also a major contributor and foreword-writer for the 2007 space history book In the Shadow of the Moon.
In 2008, NASA awarded Cunningham the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for his Apollo 7 mission.
He is currently a radio talk show host and public speaker. Cunningham also works as a consultant to start-up technology companies and is chairman of the Texas Aerospace Commission.
Cunningham rejects the scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic global warming (AGW). In 2010, he published a pamphlet titled "Global Warming: Facts versus Faith" in which he states: "The current debate is not unlike Galileo's historic disagreement with the Catholic Church, or the battle over evolution versus creationism. In all three cases, facts are pitted against faith and science against religion. The conflict over global warming has deteriorated into a religious war between true believers in AGW and non-believers, the so-called 'skeptics.'"
In an editorial published in the Houston Chronicle on August 15, 2010, Cunningham argued that the empirical evidence does not support the claims of global warming. The editorial, titled "Climate change alarmists ignore scientific methods", stated his opinion that the global warming debate hinged on four key points. "About 20 years ago," he stated, "a small group of scientists became concerned that temperatures around the Earth were unreasonably high and a threat to humanity. In their infinite wisdom, they decided: 1) that CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels were abnormally high, 2) that higher levels of CO2 were bad for humanity, 3) that warmer temperatures would be worse for the world, and 4) that we are capable of overriding natural forces to control the Earth's temperature. Not one of these presumptions (opinions) has proven to be valid."
Cunningham is a member of numerous organizations. He is an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, fellow of the American Astronautical Society, member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, American Geophysical Union, Explorers Club, Sigma Pi Sigma and Sigma Xi, Association of Space Explorers, Houston American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, Aviation Subcommittee, Houston Chamber of Commerce, Earth Awareness Foundation, National Association of Small Business Investment Companies.
Cunningham is a recipient of numerous national and international honors, including:NASA Distinguished Service Medal
NASA Exceptional Service Medal
AIAA Haley Astronautics Award, 1969
UCLA Professional Achievement Award, 1969
Special Trustees Award, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (Emmy Award), 1969
Medal of Valor, American Legion, 1975
Outstanding American Award, American Conservative Union, 1975
Listed in Who's Who
George Haddaway Award, 2000
Houston Hall of Fame
International Space Hall of Fame, inducted in 1983
U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, inducted in 1997
Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame, inducted in 2003
San Diego Air and Space Hall of Fame.