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Jim McDivitt, NASA Apollo mission astronaut, dies at 93

Tributes paid to Air Force veteran who helped make first US spacewalk possible

Jim McDivitt, a US Air Force pilot and NASA veteran, best-known for flying in the pioneering Gemini and Apollo human spaceflight programs that led to the first manned Moon landing, has died at 93.

McDivitt's career took flight during the Korean War, where he served as a fighter pilot, navigating F-80 and F-86 jets in 145 combat missions. After that war ended, he completed a degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan, graduating first in his class in 1959.

He then returned to the Air Force and was accepted into the Experimental Flight Test Pilot School, which meant he was primed for NASA's search for intrepid space travelers. As such, he joined America's second astronaut squad, dubbed the Next Nine after the first set: the Mercury Seven.

McDivitt was selected as the command pilot of Gemini IV in 1965, which was tasked with rendezvousing the crew capsule with the spent upper stage of the Titan II rocket that put it in orbit. Though that rendezvous wasn't successful, various experiments were conducted as planned.

Significantly, McDivitt encouraged NASA to design spacesuits that would allow fellow 'naut Ed White to open the Gemini IV capsule hatch and perform a spacewalk if needed, leading to the famous image of White outside the spacecraft, far above the Pacific Ocean, performing the first American spacewalk. McDivitt took that photo.

For his next job, he began training as a commander for a backup team in 1966 to support what would have been the first crewed Apollo mission, code-named AS-204. But all scheduled crewed missions were temporarily cancelled when a cabin fire struck Apollo 1 during a launch rehearsal and killed three onboard astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, in 1967.

McDivitt didn't fly again until 1969 for Apollo 9, a ten-day mission testing the Apollo command and service module (CSM) and a lunar module (LM) while in Earth's orbit. This was to validate the modules for use in actual lunar operations to come.

The goal of Apollo 9 was to dock the CSM with the LM after both components had separated from the launch vehicle, and control both modules with a single engine. McDivitt and his crew left the CSM to enter the LM, demonstrating that astronauts could move from one spacecraft to another for the first time. After flying for more than a week in low-Earth orbit, the team returned home, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

McDivitt was made manager of NASA's lunar landing operations in time for the epic Apollo 11 mission in 1969, which put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon's surface, the first humans to set foot on the regolith. McDivitt was later promoted to manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program and oversaw missions 12 to 16.

"It was more important to McDivitt that the overall program was a success than to personally land on the Moon," Frances French, a spaceflight historian, told NPR.

"It's very unusual to find people in life who are both light-hearted and really dedicated to their job. And this guy was one of those rare examples of both," French added.

McDivitt left the USAF and NASA in 1972 to join the corporate world working as an executive for Consumers Power Company, Pullman, and Rockwell International before officially retiring in 1995.

He had logged over 5,000 flight hours and spent over 14 days in space by then, and was inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1993. ®

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