Astronaut who sent medal to Pope he was carrying in space dies at 93

James A. McDivitt piloted the Gemini capsule on the first spacewalk and later played a key role in the lunar landings.

Shortly after a pioneering trip to space in 1965, astronaut James A. McDivitt sent Pope Paul VI a medal of St. Christopher which he took on Gemini 4.

McDivitt [at left in photo above]who also flew on an Apollo mission just before Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, died last Thursday at the age of 93.

A former test pilot, McDivitt “piloted the Gemini 4 capsule, which circled the Earth for nearly 98 hours over four days in June 1965, a record for a two-person spaceflight,” reported the New York Times. “The main purpose of the mission was to determine if the astronauts could sustain an extended time in space, which they did very well. But its most famous achievement was a 20-minute spacewalk. by Mr. McDivitt’s teammate, Edward H. White 2d, who had been his classmate at the University of Michigan and had become his best friend.

A Catholic Press Service article, published in The Catholic Advocate on August 19, 1965, quoted the Coadjutor Bishop of Galveston-Houston, John L. Morkovsky, as saying that McDivitt had given him a medal of St. Christopher to pass on to Pope Paul .

McDivitt had taken two such medals on the flight, including one he had received from Pope John XXIII several years earlier. The one he sent to Pope Paul was sent to him by an anonymous sympathizer, according to the dispatch.

Wikipedia, citing a 1967 UPI article, also indicates that McDivitt was a Knight of Columbus and represented the Catholic fraternal organization at the Third World Congress of the Lay Apostolate at the Vatican in 1967.

In Congress, McDivitt reflected on what he saw as the Second Vatican Council’s concern for “one global community,” according to Kevin Ahern, assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, writing to the Daily Theology.

“In space, it’s really one world: when you look from space, you don’t see the boundaries of [sic]; all you see are the boundaries between land and water,” he said. “It’s really and truly one world – and you get around it in a very short time: it makes you feel very insignificant as a person, but you know there’s a lot to do there, and it has to be done together.”

He went on to give an example of how space exploration had led to possible solutions to global problems.

“We had a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico recently,” he said. “When it arrived in the Gulf of Mexico, it hit about 200 miles from my home on the Mexico-Texas border. It did a tremendous amount of damage. … However, although we lost billions of dollars in property and that hundreds of thousands of people are homeless, there have only been 43 people in the United States who have been killed by tornadoes you can’t defend yourself against – and the reason we saved it all those lifetimes was because we knew where the hurricane was and we knew where it was going, so it’s a very practical use of space.

Preparing to walk on the moon

A native of Chicago, McDivitt joined the Air Force in 1951 as an aviation cadet after attending junior college. After serving in the Korean War and earning a degree in aeronautical engineering, he became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He then entered a training center in Edwards for future astronauts and soon after was selected for the Gemini program.

In September 1962, NASA designated him as one of nine astronauts for the Gemini program, the precursor to the Apollo missions to the Moon.

Later, in March 1969, he commanded the Apollo 9 flight, a 10-day Earth orbit by a three-man crew. An online portrait of the NASA astronaut said Apollo 9 was “the first to test all the hardware needed to land astronauts on the Moon, including the Lunar Module.”

As The Times explained, McDivitt flew with Russell L. Schweickart “in a pioneering test of the Lunar Module, the prototype space vehicle that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon four months later. With David R. Scott piloting the Apollo 9 craft, the lunar module disengaged from it, orbited more than 100 miles away, then returned.

In subsequent missions, McDivitt played a key role on the ground guiding Apollo flights to the lunar surface.

Wikipedia says he died in Tucson, Arizona.

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