NASA Astronaut, Apollo Commander James McDivitt Dies at Age 93


Portrait of NASA astronaut James A. McDivitt. Credit: NASA

He joined the Air Force in 1951 and retired with the rank of Brig. General. He flew 145 combat missions during the Korean War in F-80 and F-86 aircraft. He was a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School and the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot course and served as an experimental test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He logged more than 5,000 flying hours during his piloting career.

McDivitt was selected as an astronaut by NASA in September 1962 as part of NASA’s second astronaut class.

Astronaut James A. McDivitt, shown here in his official 1971 portrait, died Oct. 13, 2022. McDivitt commanded Gemini IV, the second crewed Gemini flight, and Apollo 9, which tested the first lunar module in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

He first flew in space as commander of the Gemini IV mission in June 1965. McDivitt was joined by fellow Air Force pilot Ed White on the program’s most ambitious flight to date. During Gemini IV, White would become the first American to venture outside his spacecraft for what officially is known as an extravehicular activity (EVA) or as the world has come to know it, a spacewalk.

Gemini IV astronauts Ed White, left, and Jim McDivitt, pose at Cape Kennedy’s Launch Pad 19 on June 1, 1965. Credit: NASA

In the following years, it was a skill that allowed Apollo explorers to walk on the Moon and American astronauts and their partners from around the world to build the International Space Station. The mission’s four-day duration nearly doubled NASA astronauts’ previous time in space to that point, with the longest American spaceflight previously being Gordon Cooper’s 34-hour Mercury 9 mission.

Gemini 4 astronaut Ed White begins his spacewalk extra-vehicular activity over the Pacific Ocean on the third orbit. This was the first spacewalk by a U.S. astronaut. It lasted 23 minutes. White initially used the gas powered gun held in his hand. After the first three minutes the fuel ran out and White manuevered by twisting his body and pulling on the 8 meter long umbilical cord. The photographs were taken by commander James McDivitt. Credit: NASA

McDivitt’s second spaceflight as the commander of Apollo 9 played a critical role in landing the first humans on the Moon. This was the first flight of the complete set of Apollo hardware and was the first flight of the Lunar Module. The mission launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on March 3, 1969, with Commander James McDivitt, Command Module Pilot David Scott, and Lunar Module Pilot Russell Schweickart.

The Apollo 9 astronauts, left to right, James A. McDivitt, David R. Scott, and Russell L. Schweickart, pause in front of the Apollo/Saturn V space vehicle that would launch the Apollo 8 crew. The launch of the Apollo 9 (Saturn V launch vehicle, SA-504) took place on March 3, 1969. The Apollo 9 spacecraft, in the lunar mission configuration, was tested in Earth orbit. The mission was designed to rehearse all the steps and reproduce all the events of the Apollo 11 mission with the exception of the lunar touchdown, stay, and liftoff. The command and service modules, and the lunar module were used in flight procedures identical to those that would later take similar vehicles to the Moon, and a landing. The Apollo 9 crew landed on March 13, 1969. Credit: NASA

After launch, Apollo 9 entered Earth orbit and the crew performed an engineering test of the first crewed lunar module, nicknamed “Spider,” from beginning to end. They simulated the maneuvers that would be performed during actual lunar missions. During the mission, the astronauts performed a series of flight tasks with the command and service module and the lunar module. The top priority was rendezvous and docking of the lunar module with the command and service module. The crew also configured the lunar module to support a spacewalk by McDivitt and Schweickart. On Flight Day 10, March 13, 1969, the Apollo 9 capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, within three miles and in full view of the recovery ship, the USS Guadalcanal, about 341 miles north of Puerto Rico.

The Apollo 9 (Spacecraft 104/Lunar Module 3/Saturn 504) space vehicle was launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 11 a.m. EST, March 3, 1969. Aboard the spacecraft are astronauts James A. McDivitt, commander; David R. Scott, command module pilot; and Russell L. Schweickart, lunar module pilot. Apollo 9 was the second crewed Saturn V mission. Credit: NASA

McDivitt logged more than 14 days in space.

After Apollo 9, he became manager of lunar landing operations, and led a team that planned the lunar exploration program and redesigned the spacecraft to accomplish this task. In August 1969, he became manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program, guiding the program through Apollo 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16.

Excellent view of the Apollo 9 Lunar Module, “Spider,” in a lunar landing configuration, as photographed from the Command and Service Modules on the fifth day of the Apollo 9 Earth-orbital mission on March 7, 1969. The landing gear on the “Spider” has been deployed. Lunar surface probes (sensors) extend out from the landing gear foot pads. Inside the “Spider” were astronauts James A. McDivitt, Apollo 9 commander; and Russell L. Schweickart, lunar module pilot. Astronaut David R. Scott, command module pilot, remained at the controls in the Command Module, “Gumdrop,” while the other two astronauts checked out the Lunar Module. Credit: NASA

McDivitt retired from the U.S. Air Force and left NASA in June 1972, to take the position of executive vice-president, corporate affairs for Consumers Power Company. In March 1975, he joined Pullman, Inc. as executive vice-president and a director. In October 1975 he became president of the Pullman Standard Division, The Railcar Division, and later had additional responsibility for the leasing and engineering and construction areas of the company. In January 1981 he joined Rockwell International as senior vice president, government operations, and Rockwell International Corporation, Washington, D.C.

His numerous awards included two NASA Distinguished Service Medals and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. For his service in the U.S. Air Force, he also was awarded two Air Force Distinguished Service Medals, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, five Air Medals, and U.S. Air Force Astronaut Wings. McDivitt also received the Chong Moo Medal from South Korea, the U.S. Air Force Systems Command Aerospace Primus Award, the Arnold Air Society JFK Trophy, the Sword of Loyola, and the Michigan Wolverine Frontiersman Award.

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