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Astronaut who sent pope medal he carried in space dies at 93


Photo by NASA | AFP

John Burger - published on 10/19/22

James A. McDivitt flew Gemini capsule during first spacewalk and later played key role in lunar landings.

Soon after a 1965 pioneering ride in space, Astronaut James A. McDivitt sent to Pope Paul VI a St. Christopher medal he carried aloft on Gemini 4.

McDivitt [at left in photo above], who also flew on an Apollo mission just before Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, died last Thursday at the age of 93. 

A former test pilot, McDivitt “was in command of the Gemini 4 capsule, which orbited the earth for nearly 98 hours over four days in June 1965, a record for a two-person spaceflight,” the New York Times reported. “The mission’s primary goal was to determine whether astronauts could withstand prolonged time in space, something they did just fine. But its most celebrated achievement was a pioneering 20-minute spacewalk by Mr. McDivitt’s fellow crewman, Edward H. White 2d, who had been his classmate at the University of Michigan and had become his best friend.”

A Catholic wire service article, published in The Catholic Advocate on August 19, 1965, quoted Galveston-Houston Coadjutor Bishop John L. Morkovsky as saying McDivitt had given him a St. Christopher medal to forward to Pope Paul.

McDivitt had carried two such medals on the flight, one of which he had received from Pope John XXIII several years earlier. The one he sent to Pope Paul had been sent to him by an anonymous well wisher, the wire story said. 

Wikipedia, quoting a 1967 UPI story, also says McDivitt was a Knight of Columbus and that he represented the Catholic fraternal organization at the Third World Congress of the Apostolate of the Laity at the Vatican in 1967. A Knights of Columbus spokesman could not confirm to Aleteia that McDivitt had been a member of the Order.

At the Vatican Congress, however, McDivitt reflected on what he saw as the Second Vatican Council’s concern for “a one-world community,” according to Kevin Ahern, an assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, writing at Daily Theology.

“In space it’s truly one world: when you look down from space, you don’t see the boundaries of national [sic]; all you see is the boundaries between land and water,” he said. “It’s really and truly just one world – and you go round it in a very short time: it makes you feel very insignificant as a person, but you know that there’s a lot to be done down there, and it should be done together.”

He went on to offer an example of how space exploration had led to possible solutions for worldwide problems. 

“We had a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico recently,” he said. “When it came into the Gulf of Mexico, it struck just about 200 miles from where I live at the Mexican-Texan border. It did a tremendous amount of damage. … However, although we lost billions of dollars in property, and hundreds of thousands of people were homeless, there were only 43 people in the United States that were killed by tornadoes which you can’t defend against – and the reason that we saved all those lives was because we knew where the hurricane was and we knew where it was going. So that is a very practical use for space.”

Preparing for moon walk

A native of Chicago, McDivitt joined the Air Force in 1951 as an aviation cadet after attending junior college. After service during the Korean War and getting a degree in aeronautical engineering, he became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He then entered a training facility at Edwards for prospective astronauts and soon after was selected for the Gemini program.

In September 1962 NASA tabbed him as one of nine astronauts for the Gemini program, a precursor to the Apollo missions to the moon.

Later, in March 1969, he commanded the Apollo 9 flight, a 10-day orbiting of the earth by a three-man crew. A NASA online portrait of the astronaut said that Apollo 9 was “the first to test all the hardware needed to land astronauts on the Moon, including the lunar module.”

As the Times explained, McDivitt flew with Russell L. Schweickart “in a pioneering test of the lunar module, the prototype of the space vehicle that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon four months later. With David R. Scott piloting the Apollo 9 craft, the lunar module disengaged from it, orbited more than 100 miles away and then returned to it.”

In subsequent missions, McDivitt played key roles on the ground in guiding the Apollo flights to the lunar surface. 

Wikipedia says that he died in Tucson, Arizona.

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