WASHINGTON (AP) – James A. McDivitt, who commanded the Apollo 9 mission testing the first set of equipment to go to the moon, has died. He was 93 years old.
McDivitt was also the commander of the 1965 Gemini 4 mission, where his best friend and colleague Ed White made America’s first spacewalk. His photographs of White during the spacewalk became iconic.
He passed up the opportunity to land on the moon and instead became the space agency’s program manager for the five Apollo missions after the Apollo 11 moon landing.
McDivitt died Thursday in Tucson, Arizona, NASA announced Monday.
On his first flight in 1965, McDivitt reported seeing “something out there” about the shape of a beer can flying in front of his Gemini spacecraft. People called it a UFO, and McDivitt would later joke that he had become a “world-renowned expert on UFOs”. Years later he concluded that it was just the reflection of the latch on the window.
Apollo 9, which orbited the Earth and went no further, was one of the lesser-remembered space missions of the NASA program. In a 1999 oral history, McDivitt said he didn’t mind it being overlooked: “I could see why, you know, he wouldn’t have landed on the moon. And so hardly part of Apollo. But the lunar module was… the key to the whole program.”
Flying with Apollo 9 crew members Rusty Schweickart and David Scott, McDivitt’s mission was the first space test of a lightweight lunar lander, named Spider. Their goal was to see if humans could live in it, if it could land in orbit and — something that became crucial in the Apollo 13 crisis — if the lunar module’s engines could control the spacecraft’s beam, which includes the command module. Gumdrop.
At the start of training, McDivitt wasn’t impressed with how flimsy the lunar module looked: “I looked at Rusty and he looked at me, and we were like, ‘Oh my God! We’re actually going to fly something like this?’ So it was really chintzy. … it was like cellophane and tin foil held together with scotch tape and staples!”
Unlike many of his fellow astronauts, McDivitt didn’t yearn to fly from childhood. He was good at it.
McDivitt didn’t have money for college growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He worked for a year before going to junior college. When he joined the Air Force at age 20, shortly after the Korean War broke out, he had never been on a plane. He was accepted for pilot training before he ever got off the ground.
“Luckily, I liked it,” he later recalled.
McDivitt flew 145 combat missions in Korea and returned to Michigan where he graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Later, he was one of the elite test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base and became the first student of the Space Research Pilot School. The military worked on its own, later abandoned human space missions.
In 1962, NASA selected McDivitt to be part of its second class of astronauts, often called the “New Nine,” joining Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and others.
McDivitt was chosen to command the second two-man Gemini mission, along with White. A four-day mission in 1965 circled the globe 66 times.
The Apollo 9 flight lasted 10 days in March 1969 — four months before the moon landing — and was relatively uneventful and uneventful.
“After I flew on Apollo 9, it was obvious to me that I wasn’t going to be the first man to land on the moon, which was important to me,” McDivitt recalled in 1999. “And being the second or third guy wasn’t what was important to me. ”
So McDivitt went into management, first of the Apollo lunar lander and then for part of the entire program in Houston.
McDivitt left NASA and the Air Force in 1972 for a series of jobs in private industry, including president of the rail car division of Pullman Inc. and a senior position at the aerospace company Rockwell International. He retired from the army with the rank of brigadier general.