Astronaut James McDivitt, commander of Apollo 9, dies

McDivitt missed the chance to land on the moon and instead became NASA’s program manager for five Apollo missions after the Apollo 11 moon landing.

WASHINGTON — James A. McDivitt, who commanded the Apollo 9 mission Testing the first complete equipment to go to the moon has died. He was 93.

McDivitt was also the commander of the 1965 Gemini 4 mission, which saw his best friend and colleague Ed White make the first US spacewalk. His photographs of White during the spacewalk became iconic images.

He missed the chance to land on the moon and instead became the space agency’s program manager for five Apollo missions following the Apollo 11 moon landing.

McDivitt died Thursday in Tucson, Arizona, NASA said Monday.

On his first flight in 1965, McDivitt reported seeing “something out there,” such as the shape of a beer can, flying outside his Gemini spacecraft. People called it a UFO, and McDivitt later joked that he became “a world-renowned UFO expert.” Years later he thought it was just a reflection of the latches in the window.

Orbiting the Earth and going no further, Apollo 9 was one of NASA’s lesser-known space missions. In a 1999 oral history, McDivitt said he wasn’t bothered that it had been overlooked: “I could understand why, you know, it wouldn’t have landed on the moon. And so it’s hardly part of Apollo. But the lunar module was… the key to the whole program.”

McDivitt’s mission, which flew with Apollo 9 crewmates Rusty Schweickart and David Scott, was the first space test of the lightweight lunar lander, nicknamed the Spider. Their goal was to see if humans could live in it, if it could dock in orbit, and—what became crucial in the Apollo 13 crisis—if the Lunar Module’s thrusters could pilot the stack of spacecraft that included the Gumdrop Command Module .

At the beginning of the training, McDivitt wasn’t impressed by how weak 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 tinfoil stuck together with tape and staples!”

Unlike many of his fellow astronauts, McDivitt did not have a desire to fly since childhood. He was just good at it.

McDivitt had no 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 the age of 20, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War, he had never been on an airplane. 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 earned his degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan. He later served as 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 selected McDivitt to be part of its second class of astronauts, often referred to as 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. The four-day mission in 1965 orbited the earth 66 times.

The Apollo 9 shakedown flight lasted 10 days in March 1969 – four months before the moon landing – and was relatively smooth and uneventful.

“After flying Apollo 9, I knew I wasn’t going to be the first to land on the moon, which was important to me,” McDivitt recalled in 1999. It’s not that important to me.”

So McDivitt went into management, first for the Apollo Lunar Module, then for the Houston portion of the entire program.

McDivitt left NASA and the Air Force in 1972 for a variety of private industry jobs, including president of the railcar division at Pullman Inc. and a senior position at aerospace company Rockwell International. He retired from the military with the rank of brigadier general. Astronaut James McDivitt, commander of Apollo 9, dies

Laura Coffey

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