Astronaut James McDivitt, who commanded the Apollo 9 mission, dies at 93

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WASHINGTON (AP) — James A. McDivitt, who commanded the Apollo 9 mission testing the first full 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 performed the first American spacewalk. His photographs of White during the spacewalk have become 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 announced Monday.

James A. McDivitt, who commanded the Apollo 9 mission testing the first full set of equipment to go to the moon, has died. He was 93 years old.

NASA via Associated Press

During his first flight in 1965, McDivitt reported seeing “something over there” about the shape of a beer can flying outside his Gemini spacecraft.

People called him a UFO and McDivitt would later joke that he became “a world renowned UFO expert”. Years later, he thought it was just a reflection of bolts in the window.

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Apollo 9, which orbited Earth and went no further, was one of the lesser-known space missions in NASA’s program. In a 1999 oral history, McDivitt said he didn’t mind being overlooked: “I could see why they would, you know, it didn’t land on the moon. And so it’s barely part of Apollo. But the lunar module was… the key to the whole program.

Flying with Apollo 9 crewmates Rusty Schweickart and David Scott, McDivitt’s mission was the first test in space of the lightweight lunar lander, nicknamed Spider. Their goal was to see if people could live there, if it could dock in orbit, and – which became crucial in the Apollo 13 crisis – if the lunar module’s engines could control the stack of spacecraft, which included the Gumdrop command module.

At the start of training, McDivitt was unimpressed with the lunar module’s fragility: “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 stuck together with tape and staples!

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Unlike many of his fellow astronauts, McDivitt hasn’t wanted 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 college. When he joined the Air Force at age 20, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War, he had never flown. He was accepted for pilot training before he even took off.

“Fortunately, I liked it,” he later recalled.

McDivitt flew 145 combat missions in Korea and returned to Michigan where he earned an aeronautical engineering degree 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 of the Air Force Aerospace Research Flight School. The military was working on its own human space missions, later abandoned.

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.

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McDivitt was chosen to command the second two-man Gemini mission, along with White. The four-day mission in 1965 circumnavigated the globe 66 times.

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

“After flying on Apollo 9, it was obvious to me that I wasn’t going to be the first to land on the moon, which was important to me,” McDivitt recalled in 1999. “And being the second or third guy wasn’t that important to me.

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So McDivitt moved on to manage, first the Apollo lunar lander, then 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 at Pullman Inc. and a senior position at aerospace company Rockwell International. He retired from the army with the rank of brigadier general.

.

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