Apollo 9 mission commander James McDivitt passes away at age 93

James A. McDivitt, the commander of the Apollo 9 mission that tested the first complete set of lunar equipment, has died. He was 93. McDivitt was also the commander of the Gemini 4 mission in 1965, during which his best friend and colleague Ed White performed the first U.S. spacewalk. His shots of White on the spacewalk became legendary. Instead of landing on the moon, he became the space agency’s programme manager for five Apollo missions following the Apollo 11 moon landing. McDivitt died on Thursday in Tucson, Arizona, according to NASA.

McDivitt claimed seeing “something out there” in the shape of a beer can flying outside his Gemini spaceship during his first flight in 1965. People referred to it as a UFO, and McDivitt afterwards joked that he had become a “world-renowned UFO expert.” Years later, he realised it was simply the reflection of bolts in the window. Apollo 9, which orbited Earth but did not go any further, was one of NASA’s lesser-known space missions. McDivitt stated in a 1999 oral history that he didn’t mind that it was overlooked: “I could see why they would, you know, it didn’t land on the moon.” As a result, it’s not a part of Apollo. But the lunar module was… crucial to the entire effort.”

McDivitt’s mission, which he shared with Apollo 9 crewmates Rusty Schweickart and David Scott, was the first in-space test of the lightweight lunar lander known as Spider. Their purpose was to see if humans could live in it, if it could dock in orbit, and if the lunar module’s engines could manage the stack of spacecraft, which included the command module Gumdrop, which became critical during the Apollo 13 crisis.

Early on in his training, McDivitt did not like how fragile the lunar module appeared: “We both exchanged glances and exclaimed, “Oh my God!” Are you sure we’re going to fly something like this?” It was therefore extremely tacky; it resembled cellophane and tin foil that had been adhered together with staples and Scotch tape.” McDivitt didn’t have a boyhood dream of flying like many of his other astronauts did. He simply excelled at it. Growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, McDivitt was unable to afford college. Before enrolling in junior college, he spent a year working.

He had never flown until joining the Air Force at the age of 20, shortly after the start of the Korean War. Before he ever took off, he was accepted for pilot training. Fortunately, he subsequently reflected, “I liked it.” McDivitt completed 145 combat missions in Korea before returning to Michigan and earning his aeronautical engineering degree from the University of Michigan. He later rose to the position of one of the most skilled test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base and enrolled as the school’s first pupil. Work was being done by the military on its own later abandoned human space missions.

In 1962, NASA selected McDivitt to be a member of its second class of astronauts, referred to as the “New Nine,” which also included Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Neil Armstrong. White and McDivitt were chosen to command the second two-man Gemini mission. The four-day trip in 1965 completed 66 full circles of the earth. Four months prior to the moon landing, in March 1969, Apollo 9’s shakedown flight, which lasted ten days, was largely uneventful and problem-free.

In 1999, McDivitt said, “After I flew Apollo 9, it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be the first guy to land on the moon, which was crucial to me. And I didn’t think it mattered that I was the second or third guy. Therefore, McDivitt entered programme management, first for the Houston component of the overall programme and later for the Apollo lunar lander. In 1972, McDivitt left the Air Force and NASA for a number of positions in the private sector, including president of Pullman Inc.’s railcar division and a senior post with aerospace company Rockwell International. He was a brigadier general when he left the service.

(source : AP)

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