WASHINGTON — James A. McDivitt, who commanded the Apollo 9 mission that tested the first complete set of equipment to go to the moon, has died. He was 93.
McDivitt was also the commander of the Gemini 4 mission in 1965, where his best friend and colleague Ed White made the first US spacewalk. His photos of White during the spacewalk became iconic images.
He passed up a chance to land on the moon and instead became the space agency’s program manager for five Apollo missions after the Apollo 11 moon landing.
McDivitt died Thursday in Tucson, Arizona, NASA said Monday.
During his maiden flight in 1965, McDivitt reported seeing “something out there” about the shape of a beer can flying outside his Gemini spaceship. People called it a UFO, and McDivitt would later joke that he became “a world-renowned UFO expert.” Years later he realized it was just a reflection of bolts in the window.
Apollo 9, which orbited and went no further, was one of the NASA program’s lesser-known space missions. In a 1999 oral history, McDivitt said it didn’t bother him that it was overlooked: “I could see why, you know, she wouldn’t land it on the moon. And so it’s hardly part of Apollo. But the lunar module was … key to the whole program.”
McDivitt’s mission, which flew with Apollo 9 crewmates Rusty Schweickart and David Scott, was the first in-space test of the lightweight lunar lander nicknamed Spider. Their goal was to see if humans could live in it, if it could dock in orbit and — something that became crucial in the Apollo 13 crisis — whether the lunar module’s engines could drive the stack of spacecraft, including the command module. gumdrop.
At the beginning of the training, McDivitt was not impressed by how thin the lunar module looked: “I looked at Rusty and he looked at me, and we said, ‘Oh my God! Are we really going to fly something like this?’ So it was really chintzy. … it was like cellophane and aluminum foil put together with tape and staples!”
Unlike many of his fellow astronauts, McDivitt had no desire to fly from childhood. He was just good at it.
McDivitt had no money to study in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He worked for a year before entering high school. When he joined the Air Force at age 20, shortly after the Korean War broke out, he had never been on an airplane. He was hired 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 in the Air Force’s Aerospace Research Pilot School. The military worked on its own later abandoned manned space missions.
In 1962, NASA chose McDivitt to be part of the second class of astronauts, often referred to as the “New Nine,” joining Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and others.
McDivitt was selected to command the second two-man Gemini mission with White. The four-day mission in 1965 circled the world 66 times.
The Apollo 9 shakedown flight lasted 10 days in March 1969 — four months before the moon landing — and was relatively hassle-free and hassle-free.
“After flying Apollo 9, it became clear to me that I wouldn’t be the first man to land on the moon, which was important to me,” McDivitt recalled in 1999. “And being the second or third man was ‘t so important to me.”
So McDivitt went into management, first of the Apollo lunar lander, then for the Houston portion of the entire program.
McDivitt left NASA and the Air Force in 1972 for a series of private sector jobs, including president of the railroad car division at Pullman Inc. and a senior position at aerospace company Rockwell International. He retired from the army with the rank of brigadier general.