Astronaut James McDivitt, Apollo 9 Commander, Dies at Age 93

by Lauren Boisvert
(Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Former Apollo 9 and Gemini IV commander James McDivitt has died at the age of 93. He passed peacefully in his sleep on Oct. 13 surrounded by his family in Tucson, Arizona, according to a statement from NASA. McDivitt was a Korean War veteran who flew 145 combat missions.

For NASA, McDivitt was commander of the Gemini IV mission in June 1965. He was joined on that mission by Ed White, who was the first American astronaut to officially make a spacewalk. The mission lasted four days and doubled the previous amount of time a NASA craft was in space. McDivitt’s second mission was Apollo 9 in March 1969, for which he was also the commander. Apollo 9, according to NASA, was a critical mission in the plan of landing humans on the Moon.

From left to right, astronauts Russell Louis ‘Rusty’ Schweickart, James Alton McDivitt and David Randolph Scott, the crew of NASA’s scheduled Apollo 9 mission, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, February 1969. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Getty Images)

James McDivitt was born on June 10, 1929, in Chicago, Illinois, though he grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School in 1947. He then received a Bachelor’s Degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan. McDivitt graduated first in his class in 1959.

In 1951, between high school and college, he joined the Air Force, eventually retiring with the rank of Brigadier General. He flew P-80 and F-86 aircraft during the Korean War, and eventually graduated from the U.S. Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School and Aerospace Research Pilot School. McDivitt then went on to become an experimental pilot at California’s Edwards Air Force Base. Over the course of his career as a pilot, he logged over 5,000 hours in the air.

Commander James McDivitt and the Importance of the Apollo 9 Mission

NASA chose James McDivitt to be an astronaut in September 1962. He was part of Astronaut Group 2, which also included Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Pete Conrad, Ed White, Jim Lovell, Elliot See, Tom Stafford, and John Young. Of this group, six flew to the Moon, and three walked on it.

In April 1966, McDivitt and fellow astronauts David Scott and Rusty Schweickart were chosen as the backup crew for the Apollo 1 mission. The initial crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, were all killed during the Apollo 1 fire. McDivitt’s crew was then announced as the main crew for the D mission, which would become Apollo 9.

From left to right, astronauts Russell L. Schweickart, David R. Scott and James A. McDivitt during the Apollo 9 mission, March 1969. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Getty Images)

Apollo 9 was the first test of the lunar module that would land on the Moon. Its goal was to approve the lunar module for crewed flight. McDivitt’s crew had trained through 1966, first as the backup crew for Apollo 1, and then as the main crew for Apollo 9. They were always going to be the crew to fly the lunar module, and they were some of the best-prepared astronauts on the Apollo Project.

Apollo 9 remained in space for 10 days testing the lunar module (LM) and the command and service module (CSM). When the mission concluded, and all three astronauts were back on Earth, Apollo Program Director Samuel C. Phillips stated, “in every way, [Apollo 9] has exceeded even our most optimistic expectations,” according to a report from Science News in 1969.

Apollo 9 was McDivitt’s last spaceflight. After that mission, he left the Astronaut Corps and became a manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program in 1969. He eventually retired from the US Air Force and NASA in 1972. He retired as Senior Vice President, Government Operations and International at Rockwell International in 1995.