James McDivitt, commander of the Apollo 9 mission that helped pave the way for landing the first humans on the moon, has died at the age of 93. McDivitt died Thursday in Tucson, Arizona, NASA said in a statement Monday.
McDivitt was a graduate of the Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School when he was selected to be a member of NASA’s second astronaut class in 1962. He made his first flight into space in 1965 as commander of the Gemini IV mission. During the historic four-day spaceflight, McDivitt captured iconic photos of fellow astronaut Ed White as he became the first American to venture outside his spacecraft for a spacewalk.
On the second day of his first flight in 1965, the day of White’s historic spacewalk, McDivitt reported “something out there” — an object flying outside his Gemini spacecraft that resembled a beer can. He attempted to take photos of the object but apparently misfocused the cameras.
Some would point to it as evidence of UFOs, and McDivitt would later joke that he became “a world-renowned UFO expert,” although he later concluded he had seen reflections of bolts in the multipaned windows.
Apollo 9 made a crucial test flight of the lunar module — a spacecraft known as the “lem” that would later land astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. During the mission, McDivitt entered Earth’s orbit, along with crewmates Rusty Schweickart and David Scott, to perform the first in-space engineering test of Spider, the first crewed lunar module, simulating maneuvers that would be performed during actual lunar missions.
In all, McDivitt would spend more than 14 days in space.
McDivitt had never been in an airplane when he joined the Air Force at age 20 at the onset of the Korean War. After completing pilot training, he would go on to fly 145 combat missions in Korea and log more than 5,000 flying hours during the course of his piloting career.
“After I flew Apollo 9, it was apparent 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 wasn’t that important to me.”
McDivitt would go on to become a manager of lunar landing operations before leaving NASA in 1972 and going into private sector jobs. He retired that same year from the Air Force as a brigadier general. His numerous commendations include two NASA Distinguished Service Medals and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.
During his service in the Air Force, he was awarded two Air Force distinguished service medals, four distinguished flying crosses, five air medals and US Air Force astronaut wings.