Jim McDevitt, the astronaut who played a key role in making America’s first spacewalk and moon landing, has passed away. He was 93 years old.
NASA confirmed his death to NPR on Monday, adding that he was surrounded by family and friends when he died Thursday.
Known as a brave test pilot and dedicated commander, McDevitt commanded two of the most important flights of the early space race – Gemini 4 and Apollo 9.
McDevitt grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan and graduated from the University of Michigan. In 1951, he joined the Air Force and fought during the Korean War, flying 145 combat missions.
In 1962, NASA chose McDevitt to become an astronaut. He was chosen to command Gemini 4 – becoming the first NASA rookie to lead a mission.
Regarded as NASA’s most ambitious flight at the time in 1965, the Gemini 4 mission marked the first time the United States had conducted a spacewalk and the longest that an American spaceflight remained in Earth’s orbit: 4 days.
Four years later, McDevitt commanded Apollo 9 – a 10-day Earth-orbiting tremor mission in March 1969 that involved testing the spacecraft for a moon landing. He paved the way for NASA to successfully land humans on the Moon four months later in July 1969.
Apollo 9 was his last flight into space. Despite his primary role in driving NASA’s lunar landing, McDevitt himself never made it to the moon. Frances French, a spaceflight historian, said McDevitt chose not to lead a lunar landing mission and decided to take on a management role.
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“The most important thing to McDevitt was that the overall program was successful from the moon landing personally,” he told NPR.
McDevitt became director of the lunar landing operations in May 1969, and in August of that year he became director of the Apollo spacecraft program. He was the program director of the Apollo 12-16 missions.
French said McDevitt has emerged as a leader in striking the perfect balance between playfulness, intelligence and seriousness.
“It’s not uncommon to find people in life who are so energetic and dedicated to their work,” French said. “This man was one of the rare examples of both.”
In 1972, he retired from NASA and the Air Force, where he was promoted to brigadier general. He has logged more than 5,000 flying hours in his life.
He later held executive positions in manufacturing companies.
McDivitt was inducted into the US Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1993.
NPR’s Russell Lewis contributed to this report.
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