James McDevitt, who led the Apollo 9 mission to test the first complete set of equipment to go to the moon, has died. He was 93 years old.
McDevitt was also the commander of the Gemini 4 mission in 1965, where his friend and colleague Ed White performed the first spacewalk in the United States. His images of white during a space walk have become iconic.
He passed on the opportunity to land on the moon and instead became the space agency’s program manager for five Apollo missions after the Apollo 11 moon landing.
NASA said Monday that McDevitt died Thursday in Tucson, Arizona.
On his maiden flight in 1965, McDevitt reported seeing “something out there” about what a beer would look like flying out of his Gemini spaceship.
People called it a UFO and McDivitt later joked that he had become a “world-renowned expert on UFO.” Years later, he discovered that it was just a reflection of a screw in the window.
Apollo 9, which orbited the Earth and went no further, was one of the least remembered space missions for NASA’s program. In the 1999 oral history, McDevitt said it didn’t bother him that he was overlooked: “I can see why it didn’t land on the moon, you know. And so it’s hardly part of the Apollo. But the lunar module was…key to the whole program.”
The McDevitt mission, flying with fellow Apollo 9 crewmates, Rusty Schweickart and David Scott, was the first space test of a lightweight lunar lander, nicknamed Spyder. Their goal was to see if people could live in it, if it could dock in orbit, and – something that became crucial in the Apollo 13 crisis – if the lunar module’s engines could control the spacecraft’s array, which included the Gumdrop command module.
Early on in training, McDevitt wasn’t impressed with how fragile the lunar module was: “I looked at my dock and he looked at me, and we said, ‘Oh my God! Are we actually going to fly something like this? “So it was really chintzy….it was like cellophane and tin paper with scotch tape and pins!”
Unlike many of his fellow astronauts, McDevitt has not longed for flying since childhood. He was good at it.
McDevitt had no money to attend college, which grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He worked for a year before entering middle school. When he joined the Air Force at age 20, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War, he had never been on a plane. He was accepted to train pilots before he took off on the ground.
“Fortunately, I loved him,” he later recalls.
McDevitt flew 145 combat missions in Korea and returned to Michigan where he graduated from the University of Michigan with an Aeronautical Engineering degree. He later became an elite test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base and became the first student of the Air Force’s Aerospace Research Experimental School. The military was engaged in human space missions that were later abandoned.
In 1962, NASA chose McDevitt to be part of its second class of astronauts, often called the “New Nine,” joining Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and others.
McDivitt has been selected to lead the second two-man Gemini mission, along with White. The four-day mission in 1965 circled the world 66 times.
The Apollo 9 flight away took 10 days in March 1969 – four months before landing on the moon – and was relatively trouble-free and quiet.
“After I flew Apollo 9, it was clear to me that I wouldn’t be the first person to land on the moon, which was important to me,” McDevitt recalls in 1999. This is important to me.”
So, McDevitt moved into management, first in the Apollo lunar module, and then the Houston part of the entire program.
McDevitt left NASA and the Air Force in 1972 to take a series of private industry jobs, including head of the Pullman railroad division and a senior position at the space company Rockwell International. He retired from the army with the rank of brigadier general.
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”