James McDivitt, Commander of NASA’s Critical Missions, Dies at 93

James A. McDivitt, who served as commander on two crucial NASA missions in early and awe-inspiring spaceflight — including the Gemini launch that included America’s first spacewalk — died Oct. 14 in a hospital in Tucson. He was 93 years old.

NASA announced the death but did not cite a specific cause.

In 1962, shortly after President John F. Kennedy delivered his ‘We Choose to Go to the Moon’ speech declaring that space ‘deserves the best in all of mankind’, Mr McDivitt was removed from an Air Force test flight team to become an astronaut in NASA’s Gemini program.

Three years later, Mr McDivitt and his best friend, former test flight pilot Edward H. White II, embarked on what NASA called “the program’s most ambitious flight to date”. , flying for a record four days, during which White became the first American to walk in space. (A Soviet astronaut walked in space earlier that year.)

The Gemini 4 mission captivated America, with families gathering around their televisions for updates and to listen as astronauts watched over their worried but delighted families on Earth.

” You are wise ? Mr. McDivitt asked his then-wife, Patricia, during an exchange.

“I’m still good,” she says. “Are you fine ?”

Mr. McDivitt replied, “I don’t really have a choice. All I can do is sleep and stare out the window.

But Mr McDivitt, getting a few laughs from viewers at home, underestimated how important – and dangerous – his job was to the space program. The Gemini 4 flight collected crucial technical and medical data that NASA scientists used to prepare for the Apollo Moon program.

In 1969, Mr McDivitt was the commander of the Apollo 9 mission, a 10-day flight in which the crew tested a prototype of the lunar module that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong used to land on the moon – a historic event which eclipsed Mr. McDivitt’s mission.

“I could see why,” Mr. McDivitt said in an oral history of his career that NASA conducted in 1999. “You know, he didn’t land on the moon.”

James Alton McDivitt was born in Chicago on June 10, 1929 and grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He enrolled in college and then joined the Air Force in 1951 although he never flew.

“I had already joined the Air Force, I was in the Air Force, I had been accepted for pilot training before taking my first flight,” Mr McDivitt said in the oral history. “So, luckily, I liked it!”

Mr. McDivitt flew 145 combat missions during the Korean War, after which he went to the University of Michigan, where he studied aeronautical engineering and graduated at the top of his class in 1959. There, he met White, who was also a member of the Air Force. pilot.

They became test pilots, then astronauts, and then paired up on the Gemini 4 mission in part because of their close relationship.

On the morning of June 3, 1965, they arrived at Launch Pad #19 at Cape Canaveral, Florida and were strapped into the tiny cockpit.

“The Gemini was very, very tight,” Mr. McDivitt said in a 2019 interview with Astronomy magazine. “It was extremely tight – you couldn’t stretch out all the way. You were in the seat, and that’s where you stayed.

At 10:16 a.m., Gemini 4 soared into the sky as millions of people watched on television. “Looks like this baby is fine,” a CBS television reporter said.

At the time of White’s spacewalk, the astronauts encountered a problem: the door was stuck. “Oh my God,” said Mr. McDivitt aloud “It won’t open!”

He started wondering what would happen if they opened the door but couldn’t close it to land. (“You are dead,” Mr. McDivitt predicted in the oral history. “…You will certainly burn on the way down.”)

The door finally opened and White walked out. The astronauts were impressed.

“You look beautiful, Ed,” Mr McDivitt said on his radio.

“I feel like a million bucks,” White replied.

Gemini 4 crashed in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida on June 7. The astronauts were taken aboard an aircraft carrier and congratulated over the phone by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Ticker parades followed.

After piloting the Apollo 9 mission, Mr. McDivitt remained at NASA as Apollo Program Manager. He retired from the Air Force and NASA in 1972 as a brigadier general, then entered the private sector.

White was killed in a 1967 fire at Cape Canaveral during testing ahead of the Apollo 1 mission. “My dad was absolutely devastated by it,” said Mr McDivitt’s son Patrick.

Mr. McDivitt’s Gemini 4 flight was not only notable for the data it produced that ultimately helped NASA get to the moon. While on board, Mr. McDivitt took photographs of what he first believed to be a UFO.

“I looked outside, I just looked up and there was something there,” he said in the oral history. “It had a geometric shape like a beer can or a pop can, and with a little thing like maybe a pencil or something sticking out of it. This relative size, dimensionally. Everything was white. »

The film was reviewed by NASA, which determined that all Mr. McDivitt saw was not a spacecraft. He later concluded that he had probably just seen strange reflections of locks in the windows.

Yet the UFO world and pop culture could never quite let go of what Mr. McDivitt thought he saw. The astronaut was constantly questioned about this.

“I’ve become a world-renowned UFO expert,” he joked in the oral history. “Unfortunately.”

The astronaut even appeared as himself in an episode of “The Brady Bunch” in which Peter and Bobby Brady are tricked into believing they saw a UFO.

Mr. McDivitt’s first marriage, to Patricia Haas, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 37 years, the former Judith Odell; four children from his first marriage, Michael McDivitt, Ann Walz, Patrick McDivitt and Katie Pierce; two stepsons, Joe Bagby and Jeff Bagby; 12 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

In stories of Mr. McDivitt’s triumphs in space, the astronaut often speaks of the difficulty of getting his best friend back into the cockpit after the spacewalk – not because of the hard-to-open door but because that the moment was magical for both of them.

“Come on,” Mr. McDivitt said on his radio. “Let’s get back here before it gets dark.”

His best friend, still bouncing around in space, replied, “This is the saddest moment of my life.”

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