WASHINGTON (AP) – James A. McDivitt, who led 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 1965’s Gemini 4 mission, in which his best friend and colleague Ed White made the first American spacewalk. His photographs of White during the spacewalk became iconic images.
He passed on 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.
In his first flight in 1965, McDivitt reported seeing “something out there” about the shape of a beer can flying outside his Gemini spacecraft.
People called it a UFO, and McDivitt would later joke that he became “a world-renowned UFO expert.” Years later, he figured it was just a reflection of bolts in the window.
Apollo 9, which orbited the Earth and went no further, was one of the lesser-remembered space missions in NASA’s program. In a 1999 oral history, McDivitt said it didn’t bother him that it was overlooked: “I could see why they would, you know, it didn’t land on the moon. And so it’s 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 test in space of the lightweight lunar lander nicknamed Spider. Their goals were to see if people could live in it, if it could dock in orbit and — something that became crucial in the Apollo 13 crisis — if the lunar module’s engines could steer the spacecraft stack, which included the Gumdrop command module.
Early in training, McDivitt wasn’t impressed with how flimsy the lunar module seemed: “I looked at Rusty and he looked at me and we were like, ‘Oh my God! Are we actually going to fly something like this?’ So it was really chintzy. … it was like cellophane and tinfoil put together with scotch tape and staples!”
Unlike many of his fellow astronauts, McDivitt did not yearn to fly from childhood. He was just good at it.
McDivitt didn’t have money for college growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He worked for a year before attending junior high school. When he joined the Air Force at 20, shortly after the Korean War broke out, he had never been on a plane. He was accepted for pilot training before he had ever been off the ground.
“Fortunately, 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 an aeronautical engineering degree. He later was one of the elite test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base and became the first student at the Air Force’s Aerospace 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,” along with Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and others.
McDivitt was chosen to command the second two-man Gemini mission along with White. The four-day mission in 1965 circled the globe 66 times.
Apollo 9’s shakedown flight lasted 10 days in March 1969—four months before the moon landing—and was relatively uneventful and uneventful.
“After I flew Apollo 9, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be the first guy to land on the moon, which was important to me,” McDivitt recalled in 1999. “And being the second or third guy was’ it’s so important to me.”
So McDivitt went into charge, first of the Apollo lunar lander, then of the Houston portion of the entire program.
McDivitt left NASA and the Air Force in 1972 for a series of private industry jobs, including president of the rail car division of Pullman Inc. and a senior position at the aerospace company Rockwell International. He retired from the military with the rank of brigadier general.