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Former NASA astronaut Jim McDivitt, who led Gemini and Apollo missions, dies at 93

Astronaut Jim A. McDivitt's official portrait, taken in 1971. McDivitt has died at age 93.
NASA
Astronaut Jim A. McDivitt's official portrait, taken in 1971. McDivitt has died at age 93.

Updated October 17, 2022 at 4:28 PM ET

Jim McDivitt, an astronaut who played a key role in making America's first spacewalk and moon landing possible, 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 for being a courageous test pilot and dedicated leader, McDivitt commanded two of the most crucial flights in the early 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 during the Korean War, where he flew 145 combat missions.

In 1962, McDivitt was selected by NASA to become an astronaut. He was chosen to pilot Gemini 4 — becoming the first-ever NASA rookie to command a mission.

Considered NASA's most ambitious flight at the time in 1965, the Gemini 4 mission was the first time the U.S. performed a spacewalk and the longest that a U.S. spaceflight had remained in Earth's orbit: 4 days.

Four years later, McDivitt commanded Apollo 9 — a 10-day shakeout mission orbiting the Earth in March 1969 that involved testing the lunar landing spacecraft. It paved the way for NASA to successfully land humans on the moon four months later in July 1969.

Apollo 9 was his last trip to space. Despite his instrumental role in propelling NASA's moon landing, McDivitt himself never reached the moon. Francis French, a spaceflight historian, said McDivitt chose not to command a moon landing mission and decided to take on a management role.

American astronauts Jim McDivitt (right) and Edward White greeting their families after returning home safely from their Gemini 4 space flight in June 1965.
Keystone / Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
American astronauts Jim McDivitt (right) and Edward White greeting their families after returning home safely from their Gemini 4 space flight in June 1965.

"It was more important to McDivitt that the overall program was a success than to personally land on the moon," he told NPR.

McDivitt became manager of Lunar Landing Operations in May 1969, and in August of that year became manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program. He was the program manager for Apollo missions 12-16.

French said McDivitt stood out as a leader for striking the perfect balance between fun, witty and serious.

"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 said.

In 1972, he retired both from NASA and the Air Force, where he had been promoted to brigadier general. He logged more than 5,000 flying hours in his lifetime.

He later worked in executive roles in manufacturing companies.

McDivitt was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1993.

NPR's Russell Lewis contributed reporting.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.