OUT OF THIS WORLD
Born in Chicago, he was the son of Margaret Mary Maxwell and James Alton McDivitt, a power company executive. The family moved to Kalamazoo in Michigan where he was brought up.
As a small boy, James was fascinated by the comic strip ‘Buck Rogers’, about a space traveller.
He was a boy scout and rose to the rank of Tenderfoot Scout.
After leaving High School he worked for a year to pay for the next stage of his education. He then did two years at Jackson College, Michigan.
In 1950 the USA joined the Korean War. In 1951 James was drafted into the US Army. He immediately went to the US Air Force (USAAF) recruiting office and signed up, preferring this branch of the forces to the army.
Once he joined up, he immediately applied to become a pilot under an aviation cadet training programme. He kept it quiet that he had never been on a plane. “Fortunately, I liked it”.
James did extremely well, finishing top of the class and was the first of his group to fly solo.
When he got his wings he was instantly commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, and was sent to Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, where he was trained in combat crew. From there, it was on to the Korean War.
James flew 145 combat missions in Korea. His very final one was two hours after the peace treaty had been signed. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross on two occasions.
On his return to the USA, he was posted to Dow Air Force Base in Maine, as part of a Fighter Interceptor Squadron, where in addition to being a pilot he was made Assistant Operations Officer.
Then he was posted to Florida and then New Jersey, where he became Flight Commander.
In 1956 he married Patricia Haas. They were to have 4 children – Michael, Ann Lynn, Patrick and Kathleen (known as Katie).
In 1957, under a USAF initiative, he went to the University of Michigan, getting a BSc in aeronautical engineering. It was a qualification that was to hold him in good stead. Again, he was top of the class.
In 1959, James was sent to Edwards Air Base in California, where he was a test pilot before being promoted to the Aerospace Research Pilot School, joining the ‘Manned Spacecraft Operations’.
By now he had over 2,500 flying hours under his belt (2,000 of which were in a jet aeroplane).
In July 1962, James flew a North American X-15 flight at high altitude, just over 59 miles high. He became the first X-15 pilot to be awarded Astronaut Wings (in the USA space is defined at being 50 miles high).
Back in 1959, the USA had chosen the first astronauts in their space programme. They were known as the ‘Mercury Seven’. They included John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Alan Shephard.
In 1964 they decided they needed a new wave – ‘Astro Group 2’. James was selected in this group.
He was immediately chosen as the Command Pilot of ‘Gemini 4’. He became the first astronaut to command a crew on his first ever flight (and only Frank Borman and Neil Armstrong have managed it since).
Ed White was chosen as his pilot. They were close friends, having been to the University of Michigan and pilot school together.
The aims of the Gemini project were never really made clear, but the intention was to have some EVA (extra vehicular activity). McDivitt pushed for a spacewalk to be included. This had never been done before.
However, as the Americans prepared to launch, they were beaten by the USSR. On the 18th March 1965, Alexei Leonov did the first space walk, from Voskhod 2.
On the 3rd June 1965, Gemini 4 was launched. The mission lasted 97 hours and 56 minutes, with 62 orbits of the earth. His family watched from Mission Control. Millions watched on TV. When it launched the CBS reporter shouted, “Looks like this baby is going.”
James was also the first Roman Catholic in space. Despite the freeze-dried food astronauts ate in space, he would not eat meat on a Friday, insisting on fish.
The nation was enthralled when James had a conversation with his wife Patricia from space.
James – “You being good?”
Patricia – “I’m always good. Are you being good?”
James – “I haven’t much choice. All I can do is sleep and look out of the window”.
He was massively underplaying his crucial – and dangerous role.
He then told Patricia, “Get to Texas. We’ll be over Texas in three minutes”.
He later remembered how uncomfortable Gemini 4 was – “it was very, very tight. You couldn’t stretch all the way out. You were in the seat and that’s where you stayed”.
The aim was to rendezvous with the Titan 2 launch-vehicle, but James failed to succeed – the US was not yet advanced enough in rendezvous techniques.
However, the second objective was for the USA to do its first spacewalk. Ed White did the walk whilst James controlled it from the capsule. Ed went out with a camera and a jet-propulsion gun. But as White stepped out into space, the hatch mechanism jammed. It wouldn’t open properly and certainly wouldn’t shut.
McDivitt didn’t let Ed White know about his panic. He said to his friend who was still spacewalking, “Come on, let’s get back in here before it gets dark.”
Although Ed White returned successfully into Gemini 4 after a 14-minute walk, James had to use all his aeronautical expertise to improvise a way of shutting the hatch. If he failed to do so, both men would have been killed on re-entry. It was a close call.
On their second day in space, flying over Hawaii, Ed White was asleep. James was flying the space craft when he saw an unidentified flying object (UFO) – “like a beer can or a pop can, and with a little thing like maybe like a pencil or something sticking out of it”. He managed to take a few photographs of it and assumed it was another spacecraft.
Word got out to the press. When Gemini 4 finally completed touchdown there were hundreds of pressmen waiting for them. They didn’t want to know about the science – just the UFO.
Only 3 or 4 of his photos were able to be processed. They became known as the ‘tadpole photographs’ due to the shape of the UFO.
Years later, McDivitt admitted he had made a mistake. It took him ages to realise the images he had seen were not UFOs but the reflection in the windows of bolts on the spacecraft.
But the touchdown of Gemini 4 had not been straightforward. The computer guiding them down, failed. They were talked down by their flight controller and everything had to be done manually.
Then the thruster which powered the vehicle got stuck. McDivitt had to fix it as they hurtled towards earth. It was probably his scientific skill that saved them.
They overshot the designated landing point by 50 miles and were recovered by the USS Wasp.
James and Ed White became national celebrities. President Lyndon B. Johnson came down to Houston to meet them. He promoted both of them to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. They were then invited back to the White House where they were awarded the ‘NASA Exceptional Service Medal’.
They then had a ticker-tape parade in Chicago and were invited to the 1965 Paris Airshow, where they met Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin – a fellow space traveller.
Their celebrity did not go down well with NASA. One of his bosses said, “We made them Gods and now we’re paying for it.”
In 1966 his daughter Katie was born. It is believed she is the first person to be born with a parent who had been into space.
The same year, James was transferred to the newly created Apollo mission. He was commander of the back-up crew to Apollo 1. Their job was to test the rocket, the Command Service Module (CSM) and the Lunar Module (LM).
But during its flight, Apollo 1 had a cabin fire and all three astronauts were killed. They were Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and most devastatingly of all for James, his friend Ed White.
James was interviewed by the Congressional Hearing on the tragedy.
He was chosen to be part of Apollo 8 but was then moved to Apollo 9. The press said he had been sacked from Apollo 8 after an argument with his superiors, but both McDivitt and NASA denied this. He had been moved because Apollo 9 was a more technical mission and his skills were needed then. It was the first Apollo mission to use all of the hardware that they would use for the moon landings.
It was Apollo 8 where astronaut William Anders took the famous photograph of earth.
Apollo 9 was to be a 10-day ‘Earth Orbital Lunar Test Mission’, the first time ever a Lunar Module would be manned in space. His fellow astronauts were David Scott and Russell (Rusty) Schweickart.
However, McDivitt was far from impressed with Apollo 9. He said to Schweickart, “Oh my God. We’re supposed to fly this thing? It is like cellophane and tin foil held together with Scotch tape and staples.” He swore if he returned to Earth he would concentrate on building better spacecraft.
They were launched on the 3rd of March 1969. This was two days later than originally planned as both Scott and Schweickart had gone down with a virus.
The aim of the mission was to separate the CSM (Command Service Module) and the Lunar Module and then re-dock. Because there were two additional parts to the rocket, they were given nicknames. The CSM became known as ‘Spider’ and the Lunar Module as ‘Gumdrop’.
In space McDivitt and Schweickart moved from Apollo 9 to the LM. Both parts then separated from the rocket. Scott was piloting the CSM.
The Lunar Module re-docked with the CSM before doing 151 orbits of the earth. They then returned to Earth, landing in the Atlantic Ocean, near to the coast of the Bahamas and being recovered by the USS Guadalcanal. It had landed 10 seconds behind schedule.
Even TASS, the Soviet Union news agency, praised the astronaut’s bravery.
After this flight, McDivitt retired as an active astronaut having spent 14 days in space. He realised this decision cost him his chance to walk on the moon.
He paid a visit to Rome where he met Pope Paul 6th in St Peter’s – and gave the Pope models of both Gemini 4 and Apollo 9.
James then became Manager of the Lunar Landings Operations, responsible for redesigning and modernising spacecraft. Very soon he was promoted to the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Programme. He oversaw Apollos 12-16.
But for Apollo 17, Gene Cernan was chosen as one of the three astronauts and James was not consulted. He felt Cernan was not the right choice as he had recently been involved in a helicopter crash and McDivitt felt the physical and mental trauma of this would mean Cernan was not up to the job. He threatened to resign unless Cernan was removed.
Gene Cernan stayed – and James resigned from NASA.
Cernan was ultimately the last man to walk on the moon.
He joined the energy suppliers ‘Consumers Power Company’ as Executive Vice President, and then Pullman Inc. as a director.
In 1974 he appeared as himself on the TV programme ‘The Brady Bunch’ in an episode about UFOs entitled ‘Out of this World’.
At this point, James and his wife Patricia got divorced.
He then joined Rockwell International, a company that designed and produced components for aircraft and the space industry, and he stayed with them until his retirement in 1995.
In the meantime, he had remarried, to Judith Ann Odell.
He spent his retirement doing outdoor pursuits such as hunting, fishing, golf, tennis and water sports.
He kept his strong Catholic belief and became a lay reader.
He was interviewed on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 9 and asked if he resented not being as famous as the men who had walked on the moon and being largely overlooked.
“I could see why, you know. It didn’t land on the moon. And so, it’s hardly part of Apollo. But the lunar module was key to the whole programme.”
He also said he was questioned more about the UFO story than work in space, despite the story being discredited.
He was inducted into the ‘Aerospace Walk of Honour’.
He died in his sleep at his home in Tucson, Arizona.
There is a building named after him at his Alma Mater, Jackson College, and also an elementary school in Michigan, bearing his name.
RIP – Rocket’s Interesting Photos