James McDivitt, a former NASA astronaut who commanded the Gemini IV and Apollo 9 missions, died in his sleep last week in Tucson, Arizona, NASA said in a statement Monday. He was 93.
McDivitt was surrounded by his family and friends when he died Thursday, according to NASA.
Selected to join NASA’s second astronaut class in 1962, McDivitt’s work during the Apollo 9 mission played a critical role in eventually helping land the first humans on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. And his work on Gemini IV helped extend astronauts’ time in space, nearly doubling the duration at that point in early space history, NASA said.
The Gemini IV mission in 1965 was McDivitt’s first as commander and marked the first time an American, astronaut Ed White, ventured outside the spacecraft in what eventually became known as a spacewalk.
“In the following years, it was a skill that allowed Apollo explorers to walk on the Moon and American astronauts and their partners from around the world to build the International Space Station,” NASA wrote in the statement.
That four-day mission broke the previous American record of 34 hours spent in space during the Mercury 9 mission, NASA said.
Years later, McDivitt led his second mission, Apollo 9, which spanned 10 days and launched March 3, 1969, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. He was joined by Command Module Pilot David Scott and Lunar Module Pilot Russell Schweickart.
“This was the first flight of the complete set of Apollo hardware and was the first flight of the Lunar Module,” NASA said. “They simulated the maneuvers that would be performed during actual lunar missions.”
A few months later, in July 1969, NASA successfully landed humans on the moon.
In total, McDivitt logged more than 14 days in space before retiring from NASA in 1972.
He was awarded two NASA Distinguished Service Medals and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.
The former astronaut was born in Chicago and graduated high school in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan, where he graduated first in his class in 1959, the NASA statement said.
His alma mater said it’s mourning his loss, highlighting that his contributions to the university “have inspired generations of students.”
“His legacy of space exploration will live on as a pivotal part of our history,” the university wrote in a tweet.
McDivitt joined the US Air Force in 1951. He served in the Korean War, flying 145 combat missions. He was awarded several medals, including two Air Force Distinguished Service Medals, for his work in the military.