Jim McDivitt, the astronaut who played a key role in America’s first spacewalk and landing on the moon, has died. He was 93.
NASA confirmed his death to NPR on Monday, adding that he was surrounded by family and friends when he died on Thursday.
Known as a strong test pilot and dedicated commander, McDivitt commanded two of the largest flights in the first space race — Gemini 4 and Apollo 9.
McDivitt grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and graduated from the University of Michigan. In 1951, he joined the Air Force and fought in the Korean War, where he flew 145 combat missions.
In 1962, McDivitt was selected by NASA to become an astronaut. He was selected as the pilot of Gemini 4 — becoming a NASA rookie on his first mission.
During NASA’s most ambitious flight in 1965, the Gemini 4 mission carried out the first US spacewalk and the longest US spaceflight had stayed in Earth’s orbit: 4 days.
Four years later, McDivitt commanded Apollo 9 — a 10-day mission to enter Earth’s orbit in March 1969 to test a lunar landing craft. NASA paved the way for humans to successfully land on the moon four months later in July 1969.
Apollo 9 was his last space flight. Despite his instrumental role in propelling NASA’s moon landing, McDivitt himself never reached the moon. Francis French, a space historian, told McDivitt that he did not order the moon landing mission and decided to take over the management role.
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“MeDivitt was more important because the program was an overall success than personally landing on the moon,” he told NPR.
McDivitt became manager of Moon Landing Operations in May 1969, and in August of that year became manager of the Apollo Space Program. He was the program manager of the Apollo missions 12-16.
French said McDivitt excelled as a leader as he struck a balance between fun, witty and serious.
“It is very unusual to find people in life who are both light-hearted and truly dedicated to their work. And this man is one of those rare examples of both,” said French.
In 1972 he retired from both NASA and the Air Force, where he had been promoted to lieutenant general. He has logged more than 5,000 hours flying in his career.
He later worked in executive roles in manufacturing companies.
McDivitt was inducted into the US Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1993.
NPR reporter Russell Lewis contributed.
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