Former NASA astronaut James A. McDivitt, who commanded the Gemini IV and Apollo 9 missions, passed away in his sleep on Oct. 13 in Tucson, Arizona, according to an Oct. 17 press release from NASA. He was 93 years old.
“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,” NASA said in a news release. Spacewalks allowed astronauts to walk on the Moon, and skilled American astronauts and partners to build the International Space Station. Spending four days in space, Gemini IV set a record at the time for being the longest American spaceflight.
McDivitt was born on June 10, 1929, in Chicago. He joined the Air Force in 1951 and retired with the rank of Brig. General. McDivitt flew 145 combat missions during the Korean War and logged more than 5,000 flying hours during his piloting career. He was selected as an astronaut by NASA in September 1962 as part of NASA’s second astronaut class.
“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,” said the space agency.
After entering Earth’s orbit, Apollo 9 crew simulated maneuvers that would be performed during actual lunar missions with a focus on 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 pilot Russell Schweickart.
Four months later, in July 1969, NASA successfully landed humans on the moon.
UFO Sighting, Redesigning Spacecraft
During his first flight in 1965, McDivitt reported seeing something that looked like a flying beer can outside the Gemini spaceship. UFO enthusiasts caught up on it, and McDivitt joked that he was “a world-renowned UFO expert,” according to phys.org. Years later, he claimed that it was a reflection of bolts on the window.
McDivitt’s mission in Apollo 9 was to test in-space capabilities of the lightweight lunar lander and to find out if astronauts could live in it, and successfully dock in orbit and gauge whether the lunar module’s engines could control the stack of spacecraft—a feature that would prove critical in the Apollo 13 crisis.
McDivitt was apparently not impressed with the lunar module. “I looked at Rusty [Schweickart] and he looked at me, and we said, ‘Oh my God! We’re actually going to fly something like this?’ So it was really chintzy. … it was like cellophane and tin foil put together with Scotch tape and staples!” reported the outlet.
Following Apollo 9, McDivitt led a team that planned the lunar exploration program and redesigned the spacecraft for a successful landing on the moon, becoming manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program in August 1969 and guiding the program through Apollo 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16.
Altogether, McDivitt had logged more than 14 days in space. His accomplishments netted him multiple Distinguished Medals and recognitions.