NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Doug Ward
Elk Lake, Michigan – 29 June 1999
This is our oral history interview with Jim McDivitt, June 29, 1999.
Jim, starting back early on, you interrupted your college career early
to join the Air Force at the time of the Korean War, then came back
to college, pursued it with a real purpose. Do you think that your
career would have progressed the same if you’d done it the standard
way? Started with college and gone all the way through, and then into
McDivitt: Well, I don’t really know. I did it that way because
I didn’t have any money! When I got out of high school, I worked
for a year before I even went to junior college. I went to junior
college while I got a scholarship to Michigan State, I didn’t
have enough money to go there. So, I had to go back to work. And since
the Korean War started on Sunday and I started my job on Monday, and
I was 20 years old, that was—I was prime bait for the draft.
And so, I was going to get drafted right away. And, I don’t
know. It just turned out perfect for me. So, I might add that, you
know, that I went into the Air Force—I’d never been in
an airplane. Never been off the ground. I’d already joined the
Air Force, was in the Air Force, was accepted for pilot training before
I had my first ride. So, fortunately I liked it!
Ward: What was your flying career involved with primarily at that
McDivitt: Well, when I finished up flying school I went to—the
Korean War was on, I went to gunnery school; and over in Korea I flew
F-86s. Flew 145 combat missions. I flew my last one 2 hours after
the armistice was signed—with a lot of trepidation. Nobody wants
to get shot down after the war is over! But anyway, I did it. They
allowed us to—they were very generous. They allowed us to fight
for another 12 hours. So anyway, when that was over I came back and
I was in a fighter squadron in Maine, then another one in New Jersey,
and then I went back to school at the University of Michigan.
Ward: To what I think would be a stellar academic career. As I recall,
you graduated top of your class.
Ward: One would get the impression that perhaps the military experience
really gave you that sense of purpose.
McDivitt: Well, it focused me a lot more. I think probably the thing
that really focused me was when I was going through pilot training.
If you were an aviation cadet that came into the program as a civilian,
if you washed out of flying school you went back to being a civilian.
Because the Korean War was on, there were a lot of people trying to
join the Air Force and get into pilot training. And in a class—entry
time from when you applied to when you got into a class, sort of—you
had to stretch out. And my deferment from the draft was fixed, and
the class I was going to get into stretched out past that time. So,
I was notified by the Air Force I had a choice of either letting that
deferment expire and taking my chances on whether the Army would call
me before the Air Force did or joining the Air Force as a private.
But I elected to do that. And then now I was already in the military,
and if I washed out of pilot training I went back to being a private
or an enlisted man for four years. And four years to somebody who’s
that age is a lifetime! And I really didn’t want to do that
for four years. So, I got a lot more focused in what I was doing!
Ward: Were you one of these people for whom flying was just instinctive?
McDivitt: Well, it turned out it—that’s right. It was,
really. Having never been in an airplane and no idea what it was all
about, and I think I was the first guy to solo in my pilot training
class—even though there were guys in there that had 100 hours
of flying time before they ever came into the Air Force. So, I did
it very quickly. I just took to it.
Ward: After graduation at the top of your class in Michigan, you went
in then in Test Pilot School.
McDivitt: Right. I went right from school—right from the University
of Michigan out to the Test Pilot School, and I went through that
in the class of—’59C I think it was.
Ward: What motivated the decision to go that direction as opposed
to going off into civilian life?
McDivitt: Well, first of all I had a commitment to the Air Force where
I would take another two or three years. I was a regular officer.
I’d got selected for a regular commission when I graduated from
pilot training. I think there were two of us out of all those classes.
And so, I didn’t have a finite time that I was going to retire
or leave or anything like that, unlike the Reserve officers. And as
a matter of fact, in those days there were very, very few Regular
officers in the Air Force. They were mostly Reserve; probably 90%
Reserve. But every time you went to a school or something, you took
on another commitment.
And so, I really didn’t have much choice. And since I—when
I was at school, I thought I’d like to go on and get a Master’s
degree. I’d been straight A’s all the way through school.
And I’d read a brochure that the Air Force had put out, or I
guess it was a monthly newsletter or something, about somebody who
had really good grades and they were going to allow him to go on to
school for one more year. The Air Force policy was two years at a
time but no more than three years total. And since this other guy—I’d
found out the other guy was—another guy was going to do it,
I thought, “Well, I’ll try that.” So, I was really
focused on getting a graduate degree; and I applied for that, and
all of a sudden it was turned down. And I had an assignment to Wright-Patterson
Air Force Base [Ohio] into a Project Office as an engineer, which
is about the last thing in the world I wanted to do!
Ed [Edward H.] White [II] and I, the fellow I flew with on Gemini
IV, were going to school together. We lived just down the street from
each other. And he was going on to the Test Pilot School. He’d
applied for it years before and been accepted; and normally it was
about a year to two-year process to get the application and get accepted.
Well, this was already like April or May. I thought, “Heck,
I’ll do that!” I had a squadron commander who had been
through the Test Pilot School, oh, at one time and I liked the way
he flew and stuff, and so I put in my application, I think in either
April or May. And I heard back in about two weeks that I’d been
accepted, which was a whole different route for my career!
Ward: Was Ed White a big motivation in your going that direction?
McDivitt: Well, no, he was going to do that. We were friends, and
it was a better alternative than going to Wright-Patterson as an engineer
in a Program Office! But it was a non-flying job, and it didn’t
sound like a good deal to me. So anyway, we went out there. We were
in the same Test Pilot School class.
Ward: So often I’ve heard astronauts asked the question from
your sort of background, “How did you happen to go from being
a test pilot to being an astronaut?” The standard answer always
has been, “Because it’s just a natural extension of test
piloting.” But I get the impression in your case that you may
have been a little reluctant to give up the test pilot business to
take a shot at being an astronaut.
McDivitt: Well, both of those are right. It is a natural extension
of flight testing. But after I got out to Edwards and went through
the Test Pilot School there, I got selected to stay at Edwards as
a test pilot. All the other guys went other places, but I got to stay
there. And there are very few fighter test pilots. I think we had
nine or ten. And it was a great job. Probably the best job that I’ve
And as we were—as I was going along really enjoying the fruits
of my labor, so to speak, I’d been there in flight test a couple
of years when my boss called me in one day and said, “Jim, we’ve
got this really great opportunity for you. We’re going to—the
Air Force is starting up a school called, I think it was the Aerospace
Research Pilot School or something like that. But the concept was
that we’d take guys who were already test pilots and send them
through the school and train them to be astronauts, keeping in mind
that we didn’t—really hadn’t flown anything at that
time in space, and the Air Force had no space program and a lot of
Ward: Was this, what? 1960, ’61?
McDivitt: This was 19—about 1960 or—yeah, it was 1960
or ’61, I forget exactly the date. And I promptly told him that
I was not interested in it whatsoever! And I had—I’d just
had enough schooling for a while. I wanted to fly airplanes and continue
to do what I was doing. And so, finally he told me in no uncertain
terms that I was going to school! So, I saluted and said, “Yes,
sir! I didn’t really know you wanted me to!” So, anyway
I went down through there. But I was the first student in the Aerospace
Research Pilot School.
Ward: Was this in preparation for Dyna-soar?
McDivitt: Yeah, it was really to get people in the Air Force qualified
to get into space as pilots. And the Air Force was talking Dyna-soar
at the time. They didn’t really have anybody assigned to it
but there was a concept. There was going to be an Air Force space
program. Keeping in mind also that, at that time, there wasn’t
a definition of the roles and missions of all the different military
services and NASA. As a matter of fact, the Air Force and the Army
were still fighting over who was going to have control of ballistic
Anyway, I pretty much got sent to the Aerospace Research Pilot School.
And I was a student, and Frank Borman was one of the instructors.
He’d just graduated from the Test Pilot School and went right
in there as an instructor. We had a couple of other guys. And what
really happened was that there were let’s see, one, two, three—there
were about four of us—three pilots and an engineer—that
really put the class together. Put the curriculum together. I did
most of the flying for the flying curriculum part. We designed—wrote
the specs for—we didn’t design, but we wrote the specs
for simulators. We wrote the specs for changing some of the airplanes;
putting a rocket engine on it. If you’ve seen The Right Stuff,
that was—that really came out of the Test Pilot School. We taught
each other. We just sort of divided up the things that we wanted to—thought
we ought to learn, and then one of us would bone up on that and then
we’d teach the other guys. And then we went around the country,
finding different universities that could support us, and—
Ward: It sounds very similar to what was going on in Mercury at the
same time, where spaceflight was being invented.
McDivitt: Oh yeah! Yeah. Yeah. We were sort of inventing it in the
academic sense. They were inventing it in the operational sense. But
anyway, when I got all through with that, which was—I think
it was about a six- or eight-month course, I went back to flight testing
and had only been there a short time when Bob [Robert M.] White, who
was the number one X-15 pilot in the Air Force, was going to leave.
And the number two guy was going to move up, and they asked me if
I’d like to become the new number two guy for the Air Force.
Of course I jumped at that!
And then the F-4 Program—Air Force F-4 Program—was going
to start, and my boss called me in and told me I was going to be the
project officer—project pilot on that. That was really a cushy,
wonderful job. And about the same time, then, I—another one
of my bosses called me in and said they’d like to have me—like
to assign me to the Dyna-soar Program. Well, by then I knew enough
about space that I thought, “Well, I better look into this a
little bit more!”
Ward: This might not last.
McDivitt: Yes! So, I hopped in a T-33 and flew up to Boeing and spent
about three or four days going through the plant, talking to the guys,
and my conclusion was that the Dyna-soar Program would never fly.
The spacecraft was wrong. They were trying to make it a military weapon
system. It wasn’t. It was too heavy. There wasn’t a rocket
that could lift it. And so, I went back and told my boss I really
wasn’t interested in the Dyna-soar Program.
Ward: Just like the Space Shuttle.
McDivitt: Yeah, kind—well, actually it was—no, it was
a lot more screwed up than anything else I’ve ever seen! As
a matter of fact, it was kind of funny because a month or two before
I was out there, the Secretary of Defense I guess it was, had been
out there and looked at it, and told them that they had to make it
into a weapon system. And it reminded me of a B-17. About the only
thing they didn’t have was a side-facing window with a .50-caliber
machinegun in it! I think it was really bad.
Ward: But Dyna-soar really did contribute a lot to Shuttle development.
McDivitt: Oh yeah. Well, there were a lot of programs that did. You
know, it was a lifting body concept and the landing thing, but it
never flew. But anyway, when I went back and told him I wasn’t
interested in that, I was informed that that was the first time that
an Air Force test pilot had ever turned down a premier, “premier”
program that the Air Force had! I said, “Well, I’m sorry.
But it isn’t going to fly.” And of course, it didn’t.
So anyway, there I was, assigned to the X-15 Program, the new project
officer on the F-4, and then I’d been selected to go over to
France and flight test a bunch of French airplanes for about a month.
And just before I left, my boss called me in and said, “Jim,
there’s going to be a NASA astronaut selection here while you’re
gone. Do you want us to submit your name?” “No! Absolutely
not!” He says, “Why not?” I said, “Well, you
know, I want to fly the X-15. I want to stay here and fly airplanes,
and that’s what I want to do.” And he said, “Okay.”
So, he said, “I was hoping you’d say that.”
So anyway, I went over to France and spent a month flight testing
a bunch of their fighters and a bomber. Then came back, and I started
getting involved in the X-15 Program. And we finally got an F-4 in
and we were starting to do a little work on it. And then my conscience
began to bother me because I knew I was a good pilot, and the Air
Force had sent me to Michigan, the Air Force had sent me to Test Pilot
School, the Air Force sent me to Aerospace Research Pilot School,
and I had always done well academically. And, “Oh golly, you
know. Should I do what I really want to do? Or should I do what I—make
the best contribution I think I can to the country?” And I mean,
that sounds kind of dorky today but that’s the way I felt!
And so, one night—late in the evening I called Bob White up.
He was the X 15 pilot that was leaving. And I was pretty sure that
he was the guy that had selected me to replace him, and I didn’t
want to let him down. And so, I went over there.
I called him and asked him if he had some spare time. So, I went over
there and we sat around and drank beer for four or five hours and
talked the whole thing through. And he told me that I should really
do what I thought was best, and that I wouldn’t be putting him
in a bad light by sort of backing out of the X-15 Program. And so
anyway, he said that he’d—but by then the astronaut selection
had been closed for about a month, maybe two months. And so, he said
he’d see what he could do with respect to the Air Force, because
the Air Force was having a selection process in front of the NASA
So, we met down at the flight operations the next morning at about
five o’clock. He called back to the Pentagon. He was a big deal
in the Air Force. Even though he was only a Lieutenant Colonel, he
was “the” pilot at the time. Called back and talked to
some of his General friends; and they agreed they would accept my
application a couple of months late. So, we had to get it out right
away. I couldn’t type; he could. So, this Lieutenant Colonel
sat down and typed the Captain’s application! So anyway, we
got the application done; and we had to get it out right away. Remember,
no faxes in those days. We had to use the mail. So, I took it up to
the instructor of flight test—who was a full Colonel—and
left it with his secretary and asked her to have the Colonel sign
it and ship it out right away because they were waiting for it. About—and
then I went back down to flight test operations.
By then it was about 7:30 or so. And I got a flight coming up. And
so, I was in my—in where my desk was. I was going to call it
“an office.” It really wasn’t an office! But anyway,
I was in at my desk, filling out a flight test card when the Colonel
came storming into my office, looking—he didn’t even have
his hat on! You never go outside in the Air Force without a hat. But
anyway, he came in storming in with no hat, threw my application on
the floor, and called me a traitor to the Air Force. Whereupon I jumped
up, saluted, and said, “Good morning, sir. How are you?”
I knew how he was. He wasn’t very good. And he told me that
he wanted me to withdraw my application, that he wanted me to stay
there, that I was providing a disservice to the Air Force by leaving
the Air Force, going to NASA. And I told him I couldn’t really
do that. I’d already made up my mind. I’d gotten Bob White
involved in it. Air Force Headquarters was expecting it. And so, he
yanked me off the X-15 Program right there. He said, “You’re
off that program!” he says. “Your career is over!”
So, I had all my eggs in one basket. And fortunately, I got selected!
I might add that many years later, after I’d left the Air Force,
I got a letter from that guy. His name was Peterson I think. I got
a letter from him that said, “Jim, I’m sitting here on
my patio in Albuquerque” I think. “I’m retired,
and I was just sitting here thinking about my Air Force career and
all the great decisions I made. And,” he said, “there
was one really bad one I made. I wanted you to know that I realize
that I should never have threatened you like that.”
Ward: That was a pretty significant group that you joined with. The,
I think, first group after the original seven. As I recall, they dubbed
you guys “The Original Nine.”
Ward: And you really became kind of the core, as you look back on
it—the management core, the leadership core of the Apollo Program.
And also, a lot of the leadership and command responsibilities for
Gemini. Did you have much involvement with Mercury at that time? Or
was it pretty much straight into Gemini and Apollo?
McDivitt: Oh no. See, when we got there the—by the time we got
to NASA, it was around the 1st of October of ’62. [Alan B.]
Shepard [Jr.] , [Virgil I. “Gus”] Grissom, [John H.] Glenn
[Jr.] , [M. Scott] Carpenter had already flown. And we got there early
in October. We were told we were going to have like a month to sort
of get settled in. But the second day we were there, I think, we were
told we were going to leave for the Cape [Canaveral, Florida] that
night for [Walter M.] Schirra’s [Jr.] flight. So, we went out
down there and we watched it. But we didn’t really contribute
anything to it. And then, when [L. Gordon] Cooper [Jr.] flew, we went
down about three or four weeks before the flight and just watched
the countdowns but we didn’t—we made no contribution whatsoever.
As a matter of fact, we were probably in everybody’s way. But
at any rate, we were down there on a learning experience to see what
it was like before the flight.
Ward: And of course, Cooper’s was the last of the Mercury flights.
McDivitt: It was the last of the Mercury Seven.
Ward: So, you focused very early on, on Gemini and, I presume, Apollo.
McDivitt: Yeah, yeah. Well, when we got there, we were all—the
nine of us were assigned engineering jobs, engineering responsibilities.
And those engineering responsibilities focused on Gemini and Apollo;
so you had the same responsibility across both programs. Mine was
guidance and navigation, so I looked after the computers, such as
they were, in Gemini and the software programs. And then the same
thing over in Apollo, all the guidance and navigation stuff—the
telescopes, the computers, the software, etc., for the Astronaut Office.
I wasn’t in charge of it for the Program Office, but it was
the astronaut input to these things.
Ward: What kind of a relationship did you guys have with the first
McDivitt: At that time it was more of a—well, it’s really
hard to explain. They were involved in what they were doing. Some
of them had already flown. Al [Shepard] was sort of he was the head
of the Office, as I recall. Maybe Deke [Donald K. Slayton] was; I
don’t remember how it was at that time. But—
Ward: They—Slayton and Shepard had both been removed from flight
status weren’t they?
McDivitt: No, I don’t think so. No.
Ward: They were still on?
McDivitt: Shepard hadn’t been. Slayton had. So, I guess Slayton
was the head of the Astronaut Office, because it was very small in
those days. John Glenn was involved in all of the hoopla after his
flight, plus his attempt to run at political office, and he got hurt.
And so, he was really kind of away from the thing. Although he was—he
welcomed—he and Annie welcomed us all and invited us over to
dinner and things like that. So, he made a real special effort. He
was really a nice guy. I like John.
The other guys were sort of involved in either flying or getting ready
for a flight or having been in a flight, and so it was a—they
were kind of over here, and we were kind of over here. There was no
animosity. Don’t misunderstand me. And they tried to help as
best they could; but they had other things going on. And so, we sort
of did our thing and they did their thing.
It wasn’t until we really got into Gemini that we started working
together. Gus was looking after that. So, everybody that had any engineering
responsibilities in Gemini always worked with Gus to make sure that
it was compatible with the other stuff that was going on.
Ward: How would you characterize Slayton and Shepard as managers at
that early point in their career?
McDivitt: I’d just as soon not talk about my opinions of those
McDivitt: I mean, they’re both dead. And—
Ward: Let that go.
Ward: Was there any particular thing that stands out in your mind
or that you recall about the meshing of the military culture of the
astronaut corps with the civilian nature of an agency like NASA?
Ward: How did all that go?
McDivitt: It didn’t mesh and it was very, very awkward. When
I was a test pilot, I was an Air Force Captain. I don’t remember
exactly what I was making, but it was less than $10,000 a year. I
had a full set of uniforms: mess dress uniform, a class A uniform,
a lot of working uniforms. And so, my wardrobe was a military wardrobe.
I think I had one or two obnoxious-looking sport coats and maybe two
pairs of slacks. I think I might’ve had a suit! But I certainly
didn’t have a wardrobe that that I’d call a civilian wardrobe.
As soon as we got selected, we were told that, “No more uniforms.”
We were never supposed to be in uniform. And we all of a sudden, you
know, here we are, 95% of your wardrobe is extinct! And so, now you
have to re-equip. And we didn’t have a heck of a lot of money
to do that. We had to have tuxedos and suits and all that other stuff.
And we were the representatives of our country to the foreign countries
and to all the people who were paying for the program. We represented
what the program was. So, that was—we really scrambled around.
And then to top all that off, we weren’t living on base housing.
I moved from a house—a really nice house at Edwards Air Force
Base into the civilian community of Houston. Fortunately, things were
not too expensive in Houston in those days, and so we could afford
to buy a house and things. And I must say that we ended up with a
contract, ultimately, with Life and World Book for our exclusive stories,
which provided a little extra money. Very little extra money! But
at least it gave us enough money so we could afford a wardrobe. But
it didn’t didn’t occur until we’d been in the program
for a year or two. So, it was kind of tough.
I remember one really stupid thing that we got involved in, where
the Air Force guys were invited to participate in an Air Force dining-in
at Patrick Air Force Base, which is the Air Force facility at the
Cape. And so, we got out our mess dress uniforms; and we were going
to go down there and act like Air Force officers. And just before
we left, we got a phone call—NASA got a phone call from the
White House instructing us that we were not to go to the dining-in,
in our Air Force uniforms. We were going—we were supposed to
Well, here we are. I think there were three of us went down; maybe
four. But anyway, say, three or four Air Force officers show up at
this Air Force dining-in, in tuxedos, and everybody else is in military
mess dress uniform. And a dining-in is a very formal, traditional
military get-together and you—there are certain things that
you do. You have a toast to the President. You have the chairman of
the mess, and a whole bunch of things. And so, the four of us looked
like real jerks sitting around in our tuxedos! I mean, that part of
it was very difficult.
As far as working together, I mean, the Air Force guys and the Navy
and all the rest of the people, they blended in very well. We’d
worked together in big teams before. So, there wasn’t a problem
Ward: And the differences in civilian management, chain of command,
esprit, all those sorts of things?
McDivitt: It was a little—it was a lot looser. The chain of
command was a lot looser. There was no rank. I mean, Air Force Captain
or Air Force Major, and the Navy Captain, I mean the rank didn’t
play a part in it. Our rank was what our job was, not what our military
rank was. We had civilians, and where would you stick them? Although
I guess they were the equivalent of full Colonels! We always used
to like to fly around with Elliot [M.] See [Jr.] and Neil [A.] Armstrong,
because we’d get really good treatment when we got to a military
Ward: I guess that the civilian emphasis was really a top-level political
decision at the time, and—
McDivitt: Absolutely. The reason for that was that we had tracking
stations all around the world in foreign countries, and if this thing
had any—smacked at all of military then there would be political
repercussions—or there could be political repercussions in each
of those countries. Every one of them had a different political situation,
and if it looked like these countries were supporting an American
military operation, then there could be a lot of problems, either
domestically or with some of their foreign relations. So, this was
strictly a civilian project.
Ward: This next question may get into what [Benjamin] Disraeli called
“lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But one of the things
that stands out, and the kind of—stands out in my recollection,
very unscientifically, is that early on in the astronaut program,
space program, there seemed to be an inordinate number of training
accidents and fatalities among the astronaut corps. You lost one out
of the first group; two of your group of nine; four out of the next
McDivitt: Yeah, we lost a lot of people. I think there may even have
been more. Yeah, because Gus got killed in that—and Elliot See
was killed in an airplane accident. Ed White was killed in that spacecraft
Ward: Yeah. There was a lot of attrition.
McDivitt: [Roger B.] Chaffee—was killed in the fire. And [Clifton]
C. C. Williams [Jr.] in an airplane accident. And—
McDivitt: —Ted [Theodore] Freeman in an airplane accident. Charlie
[Charles A.] Bassett [II] in an airplane accident. Then Ed [Edward
G.] Givens [Jr.] was killed in an auto accident. Yeah, we had a lot
of guys get killed.
Ward: Is there any explanation for that, that you can—looking
back on it? Or is it just the luck of the draw?
McDivitt: It was the fire—that was a problem with not knowing
enough about what was going on in the world of spaceflight. We were
all novices. The airplane accidents were just sort of things that
happen. They all came about different ways. Freeman hit a goose in
the traffic pattern. Elliot See and Charlie Bassett were—got
caught in some bad weather and ran into a building. C. C. Williams
just had an airplane accident—airplane problem just was flying
from the Cape back to Houston. He was on my backup crew at the time.
Givens had an automobile accident, and those things happen. It was
just that we had, you know, the loss rate in the group right behind
ours was really high. And as a whole, I mean, the 30 guys that we
had that flew; we have eight or nine—seven or eight guys got
killed. That’s quite a bunch.
Ward: Overall the record has been very good. But for the early groups,
it seemed to be much more in line with what you expect for test pilots.
McDivitt: Yeah. Yeah.
Ward: I think if I remember the statistic on that one. It’s
1 in 4 loss rate.
McDivitt: Yeah. As a matter of fact, the airplanes they got killed
in were all T-38s, which is a pretty reliable airplane. But that’s
what flying’s about!
Ward: Well, I recall after each one of those accidents, there seemed
to be a hue and cry from the press and from members of Congress saying,
“These things are just too dangerous. We can’t afford
risking these highly trained, experienced people. And we need—”
And then there would be a study and a look at whether we really needed
high-performance aircraft as part of the training.
McDivitt: I’m trying to remember how that went. When I joined
NASA, we had some terrible airplanes. We had a couple of TF-102s,
which are side-by-side 102s. The F-102 was a single-seat interceptor;
and a TF-102 was a very—it was a difficult airplane. Well, it
wasn’t difficult to fly. But it was a weird airplane in that
they—most training airplanes for fighters are tandem cockpits.
You’re like this [gestures]. For this airplane, they decided
to make them this way [gestures]. And so, the fuselage sort of bulged
out there; and the flying characteristics of the TF-102 were kind
of weird. And if you flew it alone, you flew it—you were obviously
in one side of the airplane; you couldn’t see out the other
side very well. It had poor performance compared to the regular F
102; and it wasn’t a very good airplane.
The T-33s were all very old and—but, you know, they served a
purpose. They were reliable and all that, but they didn’t have
good performance. And so, it was nice to pick up the T-38s. As a matter
of fact, I went and got the first one. I’d been on a T-38 test
flight run at Edwards, and when we finally decided—NASA finally
decided to get some better airplanes, I was asked to go out and pick
the first one up. I hadn’t flown one for two or three years!
Went out and signed for it, and had a look—run through the tech
order a little bit to see—I couldn’t remember what the
airspeeds were for landing!
And I remember I took off at Palmdale [California] with it and flew—the
first flight was across country to El Paso [Texas]. So, when I got
to El Paso, they had a big runway and I shot a few landings and sort
of did a little flight testing on the way and then brought it back
into Ellington [Field, Houston, Texas]. And it was a big day. As a
matter of fact, I was down there recently and I saw a picture of me
delivering the first airplane. And after that, the airplanes were
better. But that’s where we had our accidents.
Ward: How important is high-performance jet flying to training people
to fly in space?
McDivitt: Oh, I think it’s absolutely crucial. As a matter of
fact, you know, even when I became the Apollo Spacecraft Program Manager,
I continued to fly my T-38s. I think when you’re making quick
decisions, you’ll be forced into deciding something right now,
that you don’t have any extra time, you sort of have to have
experience in that. And you have to have current experience. And I
used to joke about: I flew the T-38 when I was the Program Manager
to just keep my adrenaline level up. In a sense, that was it; because
when spacecraft were flying and we had a problem, most of those decisions,
long-term decisions, fell to me. And I had to make them quickly, because
when you got out to the Moon, it was an hour across the front side
and an hour across the back side, and usually that’s about all
the time we had to make a decision and it wasn’t one of those
things where I could sit around and mull over for three days whether
we should go or not go. I had to make a decision then.
The same thing as it is with an airplane. T-38s never had much fuel,
and you were always, “Should I go to this place? Or should I
go to my alternate?” So, I think it was absolutely essential.
Ward: Let’s move into Gemini. I’d like to talk with you
a little bit about the role that Gemini played in kind of defining
the way NASA settled into handling flight operations. One gets the
impression that Mercury was kind of “learn it as you go.”
The process of determining what role the astronauts were going to
have, what role the flight control people were going to have. Getting
all that worked out. But you really made it solidify, come together,
McDivitt: Yeah. Let me jump back a little back to the Mercury. I wasn’t
there for Mercury, but in talking to guys who were: there was a big
battle over who was really going to be in control of the spacecraft
when it was in flight. Was it going to be the guys in the spacecraft,
the astronauts? Or was it going to be the guys on the ground? And
there were a bunch of—you know, you look back on them, you say
these guys have got to be kooky to even have thought things like that.
But they—there were ideas that—well, maybe the men couldn’t
think when they were up there. I mean, all the control ought to be
on the ground. I mean, don’t let them see where they’re
going; it might scare them. Or whatever the reasoning.
Fortunately, the Mercury guys fought through that in great shape.
And by the time we started into Gemini, that battle was over. The
concept of men being onboard then, the idea that they ought to be
in control was what they had available to them. And some—you
know, we didn’t have everything available in the spacecraft,
so never was the astronaut totally knowledgeable of what was happening.
That was probably exemplified more by Apollo 13 than anything in the
world! But no matter how good you were and how good everything was
operating, you still didn’t know everything in the spacecraft.
So, there was the problem that you had to have the ground and you
had to have the guidance in flight. And I think by early Gemini, we
had worked out pretty well what the relationship was. It varied over
time, but pretty much we had that thing behind us.
And Gus—I flew the second Gemini spacecraft. So, I was involved
in all—in a lot of the early ground testing of spacecraft at
the plant and arguing with the engineers and all that kind of stuff.
And before I ever got involved, Gus had sort of laid the groundwork
with the McDonnell [Aircraft Corporation] people about what that spacecraft
ought to do. It ought to be really controlled by the pilot. And so,
we had an attitude controller. We had a translation controller. We
had instruments that told us something about what we were doing and
where we were going. And I think we were over that philosophical hump
probably a year before Gemini ever flew.
And then in flight, the relationship between the flight controllers
and the airborne crew had to be much better, because we were maneuvering
the spacecraft around now. In Mercury, you couldn’t maneuver.
You could change its attitude but you couldn’t change its flight
path. Gemini you could. So, now you had to have the guy in the spacecraft
working with the guy on the ground to know what was going on and where
they were going, where they were, and what they were going—what
was going to happen. So, that worked out pretty well. As a matter
of fact, I think if it hadn’t been for Gemini, flying Apollo
would’ve been nigh on to impossible.
Ward: I wanted to get into that. [Recorder turned off].
Ward: Jim, we were talking about the contributions of Gemini to Apollo
and about the relationship of flight control teams and the astronaut
corps. Was there a reluctance early on to share documentation? A reluctance
on the part of the astronaut management to let flight controllers
have access to checklists, things like that, or was that pretty well
smoothed over and working when you got involved in it?
McDivitt: It’s an interesting question. I—when you say
the Astronaut Office, that implies that there’s this homogeneous,
uniform opinion which never existed. It may today, but I don’t
know. It never existed then. So, there was always disagreement amongst
the astronauts about what the relationship with the flight controller
ought to be. I got along with them great! And I would share anything
with them. It didn’t make any difference what they wanted. I
mean, I didn’t have any secrets. And so, I never had a problem
like that. But some of the guys—some of the astronauts didn’t
get along that well with them!
Ward: Do you think—
McDivitt: And some of the astronauts didn’t get along that well
with the contractors, because they were, I thought, overbearing, demanding,
idiotic, unreasonable, and I mean, that didn’t contribute anything
to anybody whatsoever.
Ward: So, in your view, that would have been more of an individual
difference with commanders than it was a policy?
McDivitt: An individual relationship, yes. My crews always got along
great with them. As a matter of fact, I always looked at it as sort
of a flight team, whether it was Flight Operations Directorate or
Flight Crew Directorate, or whatever we called them in those days.
It was sort of a flight team.
Ward: That was one of the things we were talking about earlier, of
how that team came together and coalesced, really seemed to have gotten
itself on the right track by the time we got into Apollo. And the
impression that it may have formed up in Gemini. And I think you said
that really this was taken care of before the Gemini Program got rolling.
McDivitt: Yeah. Yeah. I think there were really a couple of milestones
along the way. One was the fight for the design of the spacecraft
early on in Mercury. Was it going to be—was it always going
to be flown by monkeys? Or were we actually going to have somebody
with a brain, that had rational powers, that had some experience in
flying things, and was that—were they going to utilize that
to make the whole thing better? I think the Mercury guys fought that
battle very well, and we ended up with a concept that a lot of us,
I think in the end—to design spacecraft that were much more
flexible than anything the Russians ever put up. Because they were
more automated and ours were more manually operated. We had automation,
but we had a lot of manual backups though. So, I think that that decision
pointed back early in the Mercury days was absolutely essential.
Then we get around to flying, I think the cooperation between the
guys on the ground and the guys in space was probably advanced more
by Gemini, because you could do different things with Gemini and—things
like a rendezvous and the EVAs [Extravehicular Activity] and all that
kind of stuff. Maneuvering the spacecraft around. That really took
people on both ends of the string to take care of the problem. So,
I think that operational stuff really came under Gemini. And that’s
why I said earlier that if—I don’t think we could’ve
done Apollo. I mean, Apollo could—would’ve been a 30-flight
program with a lot of accidents if we started going to the Moon very
early because if we didn’t have the coordination skills and
the reliability of the acceptance of the reliability of the ground
or the space-borne part of it with the other guy. So, it was very
Ward: I’ve heard people say that, in reality, we didn’t
have three Programs. We had one. That Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo
were really all part of the same Program.
McDivitt: Yeah, I think so. I think they were really. I think when
we went to Skylab, that was a different kind of thing. We went to
shuttle, that was a different kind of thing. But I think Gemini, Mercury,
and Apollo—or Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were—really
were one Program. You know, the same guys pretty much flew them. And
then when we got to the other things, it was a different concept.
And we were—the reason I say they were really in the same Program:
they were all exploratory. They were—every flight was an engineering
test flight. I mean, there—you were always getting into something
that nobody had ever done before. Now as soon as we started Skylab,
we—you know, the second flight was pretty much like the first
flight. And the shuttle flights, while they do something slightly
different, it’s not that much different.
Ward: I want to talk to you a little bit about the evolution of the
concept of Mission Rules and what they are and what they contribute
to a safe and successful spaceflight.
McDivitt: Well, you couldn’t ad hoc this stuff as you went along,
or you shouldn’t because it’s too dangerous. If you don’t
have an understanding on the ground and in space of what the other
guys are going to do, you don’t have any confidence in them.
And we used to really argue those Mission Rules hard and long before
flights. And when we finally get to a Rule, that was The Rule.
As a matter of fact, as far as I know, the only Mission Rule that
I can ever remember being broken was one on my flight, and Chris [Christopher
C.] Kraft [Jr.] did that, and it could’ve had some serious effects.
But we had a back—if this failed, then we were going to do this.
And if this failed, we were going to do this. And on Gemini IV, we
lost a computer; and the Mission Rule said that we would fly a 90-degree
bank, a 90-degree bank, a 90-degree bank, a 90-degree bank, a 90-degree
bank [gestures] to make it a zero lift reentry. When the computer
failed in flight, Chris wanted to do a rolling reentry like they had
done in Mercury. And we were up in space, and there was nothing wrong
with the other concept. But he wanted to do that. Well, it wasn’t
real—there wasn’t any time to argue over that. So, we
did the rolling reentry.
Unfortunately, the instrumentation of the spacecraft only went to
20 degrees per second roll rate, and that’s where it stopped.
And we were—and the thing that he ad hoc’ed up was a 20-degree
roll rate reentry. Well, you couldn’t tell whether you were
going 20 degrees per second or 30 or 40 or 50. We had a broken thruster,
which wound us up to probably 200 or 300 degrees per second on the
way down. And while I could tell that we were going a little faster
than 20 degrees per second, I couldn’t tell what it was. Didn’t
have any instrumentation. It turned out that nothing really bad happened
out of it, but it just went to show you that you really shouldn’t
change the Rules in flight.
Ward: Of course the whole purpose of Mission Rules, as I recall them,
was to try to second-guess, to anticipate the kinds of things that
can happen to you. The kinds of system failures you can get. And to
apply the calm group thinking that you can do before a mission to
help you make—
McDivitt: That’s right. Yeah. Absolutely. And in a way, it was
like a—there was a thing called failure modes and effects analysis
that you do with hardware. If this fails, how will it affect this?
And if it causes that to fail, then how will that failure affect this?
And when you find that you have a problem in the hardware, then you
go back and redesign the hardware. And the Mission Rules were sort
of the same thing applied to the operations, where if you had a hardware
problem, how would it affect the mission? And then if the mission—what
you’re going to do then or what you’re going to be able
to do is going to affect something else dramatically, then you needed
to have another concept on how you’re going to get there.
Yeah, I thought they were really good things. And I think that helped
to bring the flight crews and the ground crew guys together. Because
those were the two groups of people who were working out the Mission
Rules. And so, when you got all through with your arguing, you had
everybody on board and everybody was supposed to know what they were
going to do.
Ward: Was that a more-or-less unique contribution of NASA?
Ward: The development, evolution of Mission Rule concepts; is that
something that NASA really contributed to spaceflight or to that sort
of testing? Or was it something that came out of previous experience
with programs like X-15 and the military?
McDivitt: Well, the X-15 Program—yeah, I see what you’re
driving at. I don’t really know. But from what I—from
my short experience with the X 15, there were Mission Rules there.
But that was a NASA program. And I think that probably most experimental
kinds of things had to have some rules. At least if I were running
them, I’d want some rules associated with them. Now the simpler
the vehicle and the simpler the task, the fewer the rules. So, you
don’t have to worry, you know, if you can’t light the
engine, don’t drop the spacecraft kind of thing. Or if you drop
the spacecraft and you can’t light the engine, you’ve
got to have a rule. What are you going to do? Well, you’ve got
to land underneath you or some simple thing like that.
Well, as we got into Mercury, it was more complex. We got into Gemini,
and that was more complex. We got into Apollo, it was very, very complex.
So, the Mission Rules towards the end were rather comprehensive. But
we lived by those Mission Rules. There were a lot of times when I
was a Program Manager that we were—we came up against things
where we had debated that Mission Rule many, many times and that was
the Rule. And that’s what we were going to go by. So, if this
thing broke then we’re going to have to do this. If the other
thing broke, we were going to do that. And we weren’t going
to deviate from that in real time because we’d already fought
through, carefully, in the, you know—in a more relaxed manner
what—the consequences of all these other alternatives would
Ward: Mission Rules really sort of form the basis then for simulation
and flight training, don’t they?
McDivitt: Yes and no. Actually it could be said the other way. Flight
training and simulation form the basis for the Mission Rules. I think
it was a fluke. You could have a Mission Rule. You’re getting
into training, and you find out one day you simulate that thing that,
that Mission Rule is wrong; you change it in the simulation. You don’t
change it in flight, but you change it in simulation. And that’s
why once those Rules were pretty much set, you didn’t want to
change them in flight because a lot of these consequences weren’t
obvious to the casual observer. You know, you had to be there and
see what would happen.
Ward: One of the things you began to sense in Gemini, and particularly
in Apollo and then even more so in shuttle, is the complexity and
the integration of systems, interactions, one event affecting another
in a way that you really can’t intuitively follow or anticipate.
And a simulation, it seems, would draw that out for you in ways you
might not otherwise appreciate.
McDivitt: Yeah. And I remember one case stands out very well in my
mind. It was on Apollo 16, when I was the Apollo Spacecraft Program
Manager. We were—the lunar module and command module had separated,
and the command module [pilot, Thomas K. “Ken” Mattingly
II] was supposed to fire his engine on the back side of the Moon and
come around in a different orbit. And a certain—and if he had
done that, he would have appeared from behind the Moon at a certain
time. And that time came up; no spacecraft. So, there’s always
the thought that, well, maybe he was never going to come around the
But anyway then, the next time was—some seconds later would’ve
been when he would have come around, had he not fired the engine.
And sure enough, it came around at that time. He hadn’t fired
the engines. And we checked what the problem was, and he said that
he had an oscillating actuator on the service module engine; and the
Mission Rules were that if you got down to your last system, you came
home. It didn’t make any difference what it was—as long
as it was a critical system. Well, that was a critical system obviously.
So, we had to determine whether the oscillating actuator would work.
Ward: Now this is the actuator that moves the engine nozzle that steers
McDivitt: It moves—that moves the engine back and forth, and
it was going like this [gestures]. Fortunately, I had flown a test
like that on Apollo 9—it was called a stroking test—where
we actually oscillated the engine while we were firing it, and everything
held together. So, I knew then that it was okay; but it had to—we
had to make sure that it was steering. If the nozzle or the motion
it went through was like—could be like this [gestures]. If it
went from side-to-side like that, that meant it wasn’t doing
any steering at all. But if it went off of an angle over here and
just oscillated a little bit about that angle and about this angle
and about this angle, it would steer the spacecraft. So, we had to
And we found after some test and very quick tests that, indeed, it
would control even though it was oscillating like that. But if we
had found that it wouldn’t control, there was no doubt in my
mind what my decision would have been. The Mission Rules said “come
home,” and that’s exactly what we would have done, was
to come home. And all the testing I had the guys doing was to allow
me to find out whether we were going to control or not control. The
decision after that was, well, at least the come home decision was
easy. Staying there was still a little difficult! But it—but
that was how those Mission Rules worked.
Ward: Before we get out of Gemini, I want to ask you a trivia question.
Ward: What did Jim McDivitt, Frank Borman, and Neil Armstrong all
have in common?
McDivitt: I have no idea.
Ward: And if my research is correct, you were—in the history
of NASA, you were the three rookie commanders. You were given—your
first flight assignment was a command assignment.
McDivitt: Yeah, I guess so. Well, Frank yeah, Frank was the commander
of our backup crew.
Ward: Of course. Yes. And that had to be the case in Mercury because
we had all we didn’t have flight experience. But beginning with
McDivitt: Yeah. They were all rookies! Yeah.
Ward: —we had the opportunity to fly an experienced space traveler
as a commander, but you, Borman, and Armstrong were all selected for
your first flight as a commander. And—
McDivitt: Yeah. I hadn’t focused on that. I will tell you a
funny story about the—getting picked to fly on Gemini IV. I
was called in and told I was going to command it, and then some time
later it was announced at an astronaut pilots’ meeting and then
finally they were going to make the public announcement. And so, I
thought I’d tell my kids about it.
So, one Saturday morning we were sitting at our—sitting there
having breakfast at a long table we had. And so, we finally got to
this dramatic moment and I said, “Kids, I’m going to tell
you something really important.” And, let’s see, this
was in about ’64 or so. I think they were, like, eight and seven
and five or so. And so, I tell them that, you know, “You know
that dad’s an astronaut and the astronauts fly in space. I just
want to let you know that I’m going to fly in space soon.”
And my older boy, Mike, who was probably seven or eight, says, “Oh
yeah, dad, I heard that at school.” And then my daughter Ann
said, “Oh yeah, dad, I heard that at school, too.” And
my son Patrick said, “Dad, there’s a fly in the milk bottle.”
He was really a—!
Ward: Do you have any inkling as to how the decision was made to put
you on that flight?
McDivitt: Well, I was the best-looking astronaut there was, and so
they picked me on looks in there. Personality! No, I have no idea.
Ward: It was one of those mysteries of how the how the crew assignments
McDivitt: Yeah. Yeah.
Ward: Something that Deke and Al kind of kept to themselves, I guess.
Ward: Was there any discussion within the—in your group at the
time as to why one person would be singled out for a—there wasn’t
so much a basis in seniority to make that sort of thing. In other
words, Ed White had about the same seniority that you did. But—
McDivitt: Yeah. Well, I think it goes back to what I said earlier.
I had the—I was the best-looking guy and I had the greatest
personality, and so how do you go wrong?
Ward: Probably as good an answer as any. What was—well, you
talked a bit about your relationship with Ed White and the fact that
you had known each other in college, gone through selection together
in that group. How was Ed’s selection for that mission handled?
Was that something that you were selected as commander and then asked
who do you want on your crew? Or were you selected as a group? As
McDivitt: No. We were told together that we were going to fly together.
Yeah, my relationship with Ed was—couldn’t have been better.
He was the best friend I ever had. We lived, like I said, a block
and a half or so apart on Saunders Crescent in Ann Arbor [Michigan].
He was getting a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering,
but he didn’t have an aeronautical engineering undergraduate
degree. So, we took a lot of classes together. We started flying together.
We had a—there were a lot of Air Force pilots assigned to the
University of Michigan—probably about 150, 200 I would guess
at the peak. There was a program there called the Guided Missile Program
where the guys came in and got a couple of normal academic degrees;
but they—it covered all the background you needed to get in
the missile business. So, we had a lot of people there.
I ended up being the scheduling officer for all the jet pilots. So,
I did the scheduling; and we’d get all the pilots together from
time to time and lay out the schedule for the next month or two. And
Ed and I, since I did the scheduling, I just scheduled us together
a lot. And we—so, we flew together. Then we both went to the
Test Pilot School and after we graduated, he went to Wright-Patterson
as a test pilot and I stayed at Edwards. And I remember when I—when
the Air Force had its pre-astronaut—pre-NASA astronaut selection,
I walked in the room in the Pentagon and Ed was already there. And
I walked in the door and he says, “I knew you’d be there!”
And I said, “I knew you’d be here, too!” So, we
And then we first joined NASA, we were given, like I mentioned earlier,
we were given engineering assignments. And mine was guidance and navigation;
his was something about control, flight controls or something like
that. From an engineering standpoint, those two things are kind of
like this [gestures]. And we also shared an office when we worked
in downtown Houston. When we finally went out to the Manned Spacecraft
Center, we didn’t share an office at that time. But anyway,
we had a very close career all through that time.
Ward: Of course, one of the highlights, the thing that is so clearly
remembered for today, is that your Gemini IV mission also had the
first U.S. spacewalk. At what point did that get added to the flight
plan for that mission?
McDivitt: It was quite late. The flight was originally set up to be
a—pretty much of a medical experiment. Long-duration flight.
We’d never had a flight longer than 30 hours, or whatever it
was, that Gordo [Cooper] flew. And there weren’t any Russian
flights up till that time that were very long either. So, it was—there
was a lot of medical experimentation on it. Tests and other assorted
junk. And then a few scientific experiments. But mostly it was the
four days, whether we were going to make it or not. And then there
was—then there started being more and more talk about going
outside the spacecraft. So probably, maybe two months or so before
the flight we finally made a decision—well, we did a little
fiddling around first to see if we could fit things in and what was
it that we needed.
And so, finally about two months or maybe even less, we decided we’d
actually do it. And so, we started working on all the things we needed.
I’m out of a very tall sitting height, 99 percentile or something.
So, when we all of a sudden had to close the hatch in a pressurized
condition, we had to redesign the seats. As a matter of fact, they
had to redesign the seat in the Gemini so I could fit in it on the
ground prior to launch. They had a big seat pan that we sat on. And
it was okay for little guys like Gus, but it wasn’t any good
for tall people! And so, we had already redesigned the seat pack once.
And then when we were going to have to close the hatch in an inflated
condition, then we had to redesign it again. Because we weren’t
sure who was going to go out and a few things like that.
Then we started working on the air table down in a locked-up room
in the—I think on the first floor of the astronaut building,
Building 4. And we worked out the little handgun and how we’d
use that and stuff. And unfortunately, we were beaten by the Russians
by, what? oh, a couple of weeks I guess.
Ward: But you kept all the preparations pretty quiet.
McDivitt: Yeah, they were quiet up until a few days before the flight.
Ward: Do you think the primary motivation was to score a first with
the spacewalk? Or was it to click off that objective because you knew
you would need EVA [extravehicular activity] in Apollo?
McDivitt: Oh, I think originally it was to score the first! But then
as we—and it probably wasn’t until after the flight that
we really began to appreciate the fact that working outside a spacecraft
was a lot different than working inside the spacecraft. And then we
had—I think we had an EVA on almost every other flight, other
than—I guess [Gemini] V, VI, and VII didn’t have EVA.
VIII didn’t have one because it—we had to bring it down
too early. But the rest of them all did. And that again was a part
of the experience that you had to gain to be able to do the Apollo
stuff. It—you know, no EVA experience going into Apollo would
have been a serious problem.
Ward: How did you know what to train for, for that first one?
McDivitt: Well, this is one of those ad hoc things. You sort of made
it up as you went along. The gun—that little maneuvering gun
that we used fortunately didn’t have much thrust, because it
was a hopeless device! I mean, there was no way you could really control
yourself. You could control yourself on the air table in two axes;
but unfortunately when you’re in space, you’re in three
axes in six degrees of freedom. So, it would have been hopeless to
try to maneuver around much with just it. But we didn’t have
much gas in it and the tether wasn’t too long, and we couldn’t
get in a lot of trouble. But the things that were important were getting
the hatch open, getting the hatch closed, getting out, getting back
in, the equipment that you needed, what the thermal protection was
going to be, what the micrometeorite protection was going to be. Just
the fact that we could go out and do that stuff was very important.
And then probably the hairiest thing that happened to me in space
was on that—on the EVA with our hatch. We’d had a problem
with the hatch in the altitude chamber at McDonnell. We’d done
this chamber test and, because we were going to open and close the
hatch in vacuum, well, we thought, we’ll put that into the chamber
test. So, right at the end of the test, we depressurized the spacecraft.
You know, the altitude chamber’s just a big metal box; you can
suck all the air out of it. So, we were in this vacuum, and we depressurized
the spacecraft. The suits—we went through all the suit checks
and stuff like that. Then we opened up the hatch.
It was very heavy on the ground, so then we had some additional things
that helped us get it open. Got it open, did some—oh, whatever.
I don’t know. Went through some routine. Then we brought the
hatch back down. And we went to lock it, and it wouldn’t lock.
And we were towards the end of the test. We’d been in it, like,
probably 10 or 12 hours by then; 14 hours. I don’t know what;
it was a long, long time. And we were at—near the end of the
whole test; and we just said, “Oh, we’ll just go through
and do the rest of it in our suits,” pressurized in our suits.
So, we did. And so, 30 or 40 minutes, the test was over; and we went
in and they re-pressurized the chamber. We went on in and took a shower
and did our debriefing; and then I went out to see the technician
who was working on the hatch because it was a little concerning that
you—when you moved the handle nothing happened to the latches.
Ward: Well, if you can’t get the hatch closed, you have a hard
McDivitt: You’re dead. You’re dead.
McDivitt: Yeah. You’ll either burn up—well, you’ll
burn up on the way down for sure. And the spacecraft would sink as
soon as it hit, too, because the hatch would be open. So anyway, I
went down there and fiddled around with him while we were trying to
figure out what was wrong it. And there was a handle and a bunch of
little gears about yea big [gestures] around and teeth on them. And
then they had to engage some of the little gears. And there were some
other little gears. And so, it was a fairly complex mechanism. And
it had to be set up so that you could disengage the handle so you
wouldn’t inadvertently do something with it in flight. And those
gears weren’t really going together properly. So, he did something
to them and, you know, it worked. But fortunately, I saw what they
And then when we got around to doing the EVA, when we—when Ed
went to open up the hatch, it wouldn’t open. I said, “Oh
my God,” you know, “it’s not opening!” And
so, we chatted about that for a minute or two. And I said, “Well,
I think I can get it closed if it won’t close.” But I
wasn’t too sure about it. I thought I could. But remember, then
I would be pressurized. I wouldn’t be in my sports clothes,
leaning over the top of the thing with a screwdriver. I’d be
there pressurized. In the dark. So anyway, we elected to go ahead
and open it up.
And we didn’t bother telling the ground about that. I mean,
there was nothing they could do. They would’ve said, “No,”
I’m sure. Anyway, we went ahead and opened it up; and Ed went
out and did his thing. And that was one of the reasons I was kind
of anxious to have him get back inside the spacecraft, because I’d
like to do this in the daylight, not in the dark. But by the time
he got back in, it was dark. So, when we went to close the hatch,
it wouldn’t close. It wouldn’t lock. And so, in the dark
I was trying to fiddle around over on the side where I couldn’t
see anything, trying to get my glove down in this little slot to push
the gears together. And finally, we got that done and got it latched.
And the next part of the plan was to get Ed to re-pressurize the spacecraft
and get all this junk off Ed, open up the hatch, and throw all this
out. And there was no way I was going to do that! So, we carried all
that stuff through the rest of the flight.
Ward: Well, even messing around with a pressurized glove in a gear
frame would’ve given flight controllers a heart attack, I think,
if they had known about it.
McDivitt: Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, this was one of those things where
we didn’t have a Mission Rule for this. And you just had to
make it up as you went along. And it wasn’t anything that if
I talked to the guys on the ground they wouldn’t have had a
clue what I was talking about. I knew more about that hatch than probably
anybody in the world, other than the technicians who’d built
it. There wasn’t anybody in that Mission Control Center who
knew anything about it, so there was no sense in me talking to them.
Well, I made the decision to open it. And fortunately, I got it closed!
Ward: There was a bit of speculation at the time, I guess based primarily
on the air-to-ground conversations between you and White and the ground,
that you were having some difficulty talking Ed into getting back
in the spacecraft. Is that all a misconception?
McDivitt: Oh that was all a misconception. I mean, people made a big
deal about that. It was no big deal at all. He was just having a ball
out there. He didn’t want to come back in. I wanted him to come
back in because I didn’t want to have to work on that hatch
in the dark. But, even if he’d have come back in when I told
him to come back in, we would’ve still been working on the hatch
in the dark—because it took him a lot longer to get back in
and get back down in it and buckled down. Fortunately, Ed was the
same height as I was; but he was much shorter in the sitting height.
I mean, I would be up here and he’d be down here sitting down.
So, we didn’t have a problem of trying to get the hatch closed.
Our problem was getting it latched and locked. And so, he wasn’t
in the way when I was trying to do that stuff. But then there was
euphoria. The press got a hold of that and created something great
out of absolutely nothing. As usual!
Ward: Was there any sense of space motion sickness at that time? Later
crews, once they had the latitude to move—
McDivitt: No. None. None. And Ed had a very weak stomach. He had a
weak stomach. Every time we went up in a zero-g airplane, he got sick.
As soon as we landed in the water, he was sick. I mean, he was—he
had a very, very sensitive stomach to that. You know, he never got
sick flying airplanes and the crazy motions that we did. And we were
short on fuel, so the spacecraft was just tumbling for a couple of
days. Just around like this [gestures]. And it didn’t bother
him at all.
Ward: Did the relative ease of your EVA perhaps mislead NASA, for
the later ones into thinking that we really understood that process
when we didn’t?
McDivitt: Oh, I think so, yeah.
Ward: You mentioned—
McDivitt: I think that we overreached a lot in the EVA thing to start
with. We didn’t do anything. Like I told you, that gun was utterly
useless. I’d practiced with it enough and I could run around
the air table with it flying, but that was a two-dimensional thing.
I could either go this way or that way, and there was no—there
were six degrees of freedom. There’s three in motion and three
in attitude. We had no attitude freedom whatsoever standing on that
table. We were upright. And while you could rotate around this way,
you couldn’t go back and forth this way or the other way [McDivitt
So, we really were lacking a lot of the degrees of freedom. As soon
as we got up in space, the only way you could make that gun work is
if you fired it exactly through your center of gravity. And trying
to find your center of gravity—we didn’t know where our
center of gravity was; so there was no way we could’ve done
it accurately. Yeah, that was a oversimplified thing. And fortunately,
we didn’t have much gas in the gun and didn’t put out
much thrust; so it couldn’t hurt us much.
Ward: But EVAs, spacewalks on the later flights, [Gemini] IX, X, XI,
we had some really serious problems on them.
McDivitt: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, because they were trying to do things.
And I think we got carried away. But you know, there’s nothing
wrong with that. I mean, we would’ve never gotten to the Moon
when we did if we’d taken baby steps all the way. I mean, we
could’ve gone from the Gemini IV EVA to a little bit more, a
little bit more, and then we’d never have gotten there. I think
when the President said, “we’re going to get there in
that decade,” he provided the best management tool ever known
to man. Because you could say, “We’ve got to stop fooling
around and make a decision. Take a big step.” And so, we did.
Ward: Your flight—your Gemini IV mission—was also the
first flight where Mission Control was located, prime, in Houston.
McDivitt: Right, right.
Ward: Did that change anything?
McDivitt: Not really. We had a backup—the Control Center down
at the Cape was in operation. And I believe Glynn [S.] Lunney was
the flight director at the Cape. He never got involved in the mission,
because the one in the Mission Control Center in Houston operated
fine. But we had a backup, and that wasn’t a big deal. And the
tracking and things like that were all independent of what flight
Control Center you used. So, they were getting the same tracking data
at the Cape as they were getting in Houston. So, that really didn’t
The thing that—probably the biggest issue we had with respect
to—other than the people flying the spacecraft, was with the
doctors. As I mentioned earlier, this thing started out as a medical
experiment; and it still was. That was still a primary function of
the mission, was finding out what kind of shape we were going to be
in when we landed. And about a week or so before the flight, there
was a big medical uproar about whether we were going to die or not
when we landed, because we were going to land in the sitting position,
like this [gestures]. Up until that time all the people who landed
were in the prone position—except Gus and John Young, who landed
and sat up vertically in the spacecraft the same way we would. But
they only flew a four and a half hour flight, and we were going to
fly over a four-day flight.
And the medical profession was concerned about whether you could pump
blood from your heart to your brain, a distance of that far when you’re
vertical as opposed to a distance of about that far [gestures] when
you’re lying on your back. And so, we had a lot of medical input
that we didn’t need about, oh, “They’re going to
die.” “Maybe we ought to put them in the spacecraft and
let them sit there for four days and nights in the simulator, four
days and nights, to see if we can separate the effect of confinement
and the effect of weightlessness,” and a whole bunch of junk
like that. Well, we would have died sitting in the simulator for four
days because it—the seats weren’t vertical. They were
tilted like this [gestures]. So, one of us would have been like that;
and the other one like this [gestures]. And it wouldn’t have
proved a thing anyway. But fortunately, Chuck [Dr. Charles A.] Berry,
the NASA physician, and some of the cooler heads prevailed; and we
just went ahead and flew.
I do remember when we landed. We hit the water and we checked around
for leaks. And I said to Ed, “How are you feeling?” He
says, “I’m feeling great. How are you feeling?”
“I’m feeling great, too. Guess we aren’t going to
die!” As a matter of fact, the one concession that NASA made
to these medical nitwits was to try to show us how to put our head
down between our legs. Because that way we’d get our head below
our heart, and blood would flow to our brain normally.
So, we went through the motions of trying to learn how to our head
down between our legs. But the fact is that the instrument panel was
about here [gestures]. And one would have had to have a joint about
here and another one here and another one here [points] to get around
there. So, we went through the motions, but there was no practical
way of doing that!
Ward: You bring up the issue of landing. Of course, early on Gemini
was conceived as a land-landing spacecraft.
Ward: As the Russians did. All Russian spacecraft landed on the land,
as you know. And the Americans had always landed in the water. When
did you get involved in that engineering part of the problem where
we concluded that Gemini wasn’t going to land on the land after
McDivitt: Well, fortunately I didn’t get involved in the flight
testing because I guess every one of them crashed! I got in sort of
at the tail end of that. The decision was sort of being made as I
got involved in the Gemini Program as a pilot, not in my engineering
role. But as someone who was going to fly it. And after the decision
was made to not land on the land but land in the water, we then got
to evaluating the spacecraft in the water. And the hatches would’ve
been like this [gestures] if we’d just landed in the water normally.
But then when we opened up the hatches, the water would’ve come
in both hatches
That didn’t sound like a very good idea. So, we ballasted the
spacecraft around this way, so the commander’s hatch was as
far out of the water as you could get it. And the copilot’s
hatch was under water. And then we put some canvas pieces across it
so when you opened it up, we had as much freeboard as you could possibly
get. To do that, they ballasted it, I think with ping pong balls to
get it to float differently than the center of gravity would.
Ward: Okay, I guess [Recorder turned off].
Ward: Jim, we were talking about the inability to design Gemini to
land on land. The fact that we stuck with the water-landing system.
That also, as I recall, led to another change; and that was the addition
of ejection seats. What was the—
McDivitt: Yes. Actually, I think the ejection seats were in there
all the time. We had to have some way to get out on the pad. And Mercury
had an escape tower tied on to the spacecraft, so that if the rocket
was going to blow up you could move one of the handles and it would
blow the spacecraft—separate the spacecraft from the rocket.
And this escape rocket on top would pull it up to a few thousand feet,
fall off, parachutes would come out, and you’d land.
In Gemini, because we had all these other things, we ended up with
no escape tower; and we had ejection seats in it because of the airplane-like
characteristics of it. Which meant that, on the pad, you ejected.
If you wanted to get out, you didn’t—the whole spacecraft
didn’t get taken up in the air a few thousand feet. You just
ejected sideways, right out of there at 200 feet, or whatever it was.
And the theory was that it was going to come out—you were going
to come out, the parachute would open up, and you’d kind of
hit the ground. Fortunately, we never had to try that!
Ward: Do you think the nature of the ejection system might’ve
had as much to do with Wally Schirra’s cool decision to sit
on the pad [during the Gemini VI-A launch abort] as anything? Just
the reluctance to use it?
McDivitt: No, I don’t think I would’ve liked to use an
escape tower either! No, I think that was just good judgment. I mean,
you had to make the best judgment you could. It goes back to flying
airplanes, like I mentioned. You know, you sometimes you just have
a split-second to make a judgment, and flying airplanes keeps that
sharpness I think, when that’s what you need to do. When it
happens, you’ve got to decide right then what you’re going
Ward: And of course, the event we’re talking was ignition of
the engines without liftoff and the fear that the vehicle might have
lifted off a few inches and set back down—
McDivitt: Yeah. Yeah. Fallen back down.
Ward: —and exploded.
McDivitt: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t like heights. And on Gemini IV,
they couldn’t get the umbilical tower down. It was pivoted at
the bottom; and instead of moving back like this, it laid down like
that [gestures]. And it would go down partway and then it would stop.
And then they would bring it back up, and I could—and if you’re
looking straight up, through the window, and I could see it over the
back of my head I could see what was left of the White Room, which
was a big U-shaped thing that would come up around the rocket. And
if this were the rocket and this U-shaped thing were coming up like
this, it was coming up sideways like that [gestures], where it was
going to hit the spacecraft. And right at the last second, it would
jump over and do this [gestures]. Then I had visions of this thing
coming up and hitting the spacecraft and us tumbling off! I don’t
think that ejection seat would’ve worked then! I sure got tired
It did give us an opportunity, though, to sit there for a while. As
a matter of fact, Ed and I both fell asleep up on top of the rocket.
And they finally had to wake us up and ask us if we’d like to
talk to our wives. We had a chance to talk to our wives from the spacecraft
just before launch, while they were fiddling around, getting that
Ward: Your Gemini IV flight had one other occurrence that is remembered
by some. And that is a report, from you I believe, that you had encountered
an object in orbit whose origins you were not certain of. And of course,
the UFO [Unidentified Flying Object] buffs immediately thought you
had seen an alien spacecraft.
McDivitt: The story of how I became a UFO expert! Well, what happened
was that we were low on fuel and the spacecraft was just tumbling
through space, end over end and sideways and all over. Ed was asleep.
We were taking turns sleeping. And Ed was asleep, and I was doing
something in the spacecraft. I looked outside, just glanced up, and
there was something out there. It had a geometrical shape similar
to a beer can or a pop can, and with a little thing like maybe like
a pencil or something sticking out of it. That relative size, dimensionally.
It was all white.
And I’d—we had all of our rocket engines shut off. I mean,
we had the electronics form shut off. We were a battery-powered spacecraft,
so we were trying to save electrical energy. And I immediately reached
up and turned on the—pushed in the circuit breakers, because
I thought I might have to maneuver around this thing, whatever it
was. I couldn’t tell how close it was, how big it was. I grabbed
a camera and took a picture. It was just floating there. I grabbed
it and took it a picture. I grabbed another one and took a picture.
And then the spacecraft rotated around where I couldn’t see
Finally the rockets warmed up. The electronics warmed up. Remember,
these were the Dark Ages. It takes a while to warm up! And so, by
the time they got to where they’d worked, I didn’t have
any attitude indicators. We had all the instrumentation shut off,
too. So—and we were looking at the black sky; I had no reference
whatsoever. So, I tried to fly the spacecraft back down to where I
thought it was. And I never did see it again.
The fact that I could see it was—pretty much meant to me that
it was in our orbit. If it was in a different orbit, we would’ve—going
18,000 miles an hour, it would’ve went by us so fast that we’d
have never seen it at all. I had no idea whether it was a little thing
up close to the window or it was a big thing out a little bit further.
It could’ve been the size of the Empire State Building for all
I knew way out there. But I’m sure it was in the—in our
orbit and it probably was a piece of ice that had fallen off the spacecraft
someplace. Or maybe a piece of Mylar that had come out from behind
the thing and come up in front.
Nothing ever showed up on the photographs. I reviewed them all. They
were probably out of focus and I didn’t have time to adjust
anything. I didn’t—I couldn’t adjust the F-stops
or the range or anything. I just grabbed the cameras and took a picture.
So, anyway, that was it. And—but I got to be a world-renowned
UFO expert over that!
The thing that really exacerbated the problem was when we got back
to—when the film got back to Houston, we were still out on an
aircraft carrier. They printed up all the EVA film, which was of great
interest because nobody had ever seen an EVA before, and had a huge
press conference. All that stuff was shown at the press conference.
Some reporter wanted to know about the UFO. NASA said they hadn’t
printed all of the photos. They would print them later that night.
He hung around and eventually they got them all printed. And I understand—many
years later I figured this out, or at least I think I figured it out,
this guy and a photo tech went through all the photos; and they picked
out one that looked like a bunch of spacecraft from some foreign planet.
They were disc-shaped things with a tail. I think there were three
or four of them in an echelon formation. And then that got printed
someplace. I never did see it until years and years later, when I
started getting all these requests to appear on UFO shows.
I went back and then I saw what the thing was. And really what it
was, was a reflection of the bolts in the windows. The windows were
made up of about three or four or five panes of glass, so that if
one got broken we still had some pressure integrity. And these little
things, when the Sun shined on them right, they’d multiply the
images off the different panes. And I’m quite sure that that’s
what this thing was. But anyway, I became a world-renowned expert
in UFOs. Unfortunately.
Ward: So, to the best of your knowledge at the time and years later,
there’s nothing abnormal or unusual—
McDivitt: No. There’s nothing unusual about this at all. It
was just—it’s sort of like John Glenn talking about the
fireflies. I mean, those were just pieces of ice crystals that were
falling off the spacecraft. And the same thing with this. It was just
something that I’m sure came off the spacecraft.
Ward: Well, one of the things that with increasing experience in spaceflight
and the extreme lighting conditions and so on that has come clear
over the years is that a lot of times things that you might think
are large objects far away really are, as you point out, small objects
that are very close—
McDivitt: Oh yeah. They could be right up here in front of you. They
could be right on the outside of the window.
Ward: —and, therefore, would be out of focus in any camera picture
you tried to take and wouldn’t show up.
McDivitt: Absolutely. Yeah. As a matter of fact later on, on Apollo
9, there was a big Mylar balloon up there, I forget what they called
it, Echo, I think it was. They wanted to know if we wanted to see
Echo. It was out at, like, 800 or 900 miles. And we said, “Oh
yeah, let’s look at that.” So, we got the spacecraft oriented
around in a certain direction, and I had a six-power telescope in
the left-hand window of the spacecraft. And Dave [David R.] Scott
went down in the lower equipment bay. He had to use a 28-power telescope
down there. And so, they finally said, “Okay, it’s coming
up in the sight now.” And Dave said, “Oh yeah, I’ve
got it.” He had the telescope tracking it with the computer.
And so, I looked out there and, “Oh yeah,” I said, “I
can see it.” And Rusty was sitting over in the other window
and he didn’t have anything, and he said, “Oh yeah, I
can see it, too!” So, we were looking at this thing probably
near 1,000 miles.
And later on in the flight, they wanted to know if we could—if
we wanted to see the ascent stage, which we put in this huge orbit
around the Earth. And it was coming down, and it was some thousands
of miles away. They wanted to know if we wanted to see it. “Oh
yeah, let’s see if we can find it.” So, we put the orbit
into our computer and had our telescope track it. And we could see
it. Now, we were using a 28-powered telescope, but we could see it
out at some number of thousand of miles.
Ward: This was your Apollo booster?
McDivitt: Yeah. It actually was the ascent stage of the lunar module.
Ward: Oh, okay.
McDivitt: Which was not very large.
Ward: When you were on your Gemini flight, one of the other objectives
was to rendezvous with the upper stage.
Ward: That didn’t really work out.
McDivitt: No. That was a—we didn’t use our head on that
ahead of time! That was sort of an ad hoc thing that we put on when
we did the—when we were going to do the EVA, we wanted to have
something to EVA around. And so, we were going to have Ed fly over
there and take a couple of pieces of metal off of it. But we made
two fatal mistakes: one is that we put two lights on it—two
flashing lights instead of three. If you take a cylinder and put two
lights on it, you can see both those lights only in one position,
when you’re perpendicular to the lights. As soon as it shifts
around a little bit, one of the lights is obscured. So, you never
see more than one light, or hardly ever see more than one light. And
it’s very difficult to fly formation with one flashing bright
light. So, as soon as we got into the dark, we had no depth perception
on it whatsoever.
The thing that really caused the problem, though, was the fact that
the upper stage had a—when it shut down, they left a vent open
on it to vent the propellant on it, which acted like a small rocket
engine. And when we backed away from it and did our inertial measurement
unit alignment, the rocket started maneuvering away from us. So, I
had to curtail the alignment to get back down close to the rocket.
And then as we went into the dark, it continued to maneuver around.
And it didn’t have any stabilization anymore, so it could be
going this way at one time and this way—some other way some
And so, I had to chase it around in the dark with only one light visible.
And it just—I mean, there was no way to tell how far away we
were. So, we finally gave up on that. I was concerned that we were
going to have a collision between our spacecraft and the rocket. And
since it wasn’t that vital a part of the mission, I just let
Ward: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the transition now
from Gemini to Apollo. You mentioned that you don’t think we
could’ve flown Apollo successfully without the experience that
we gained in Gemini. If you would, just kind of recapitulate for us
what those essential elements were that came out of Gemini that we
had to apply to Apollo.
McDivitt: Well, one was the coordination between the ground people
and the people in flight. That was one thing. We developed a rendezvous
technique, understood what we had to do there. We developed some EVA
experience, not a lot, but we figured out that it wasn’t a piece
of cake. And although we didn’t have—on a normal Apollo
mission, we didn’t have to do anything outside the spacecraft
other than walk around on the Moon—I mean, we didn’t have
to float around up in space and do things—there was the potential
of a stuck hatch and we might have to go extravehicular to get from
the lunar module back to the command module. So, we got enough expertise
And then I think that designing the Gemini spacecraft so that it could
be used by the pilot allowed us to design Apollo spacecraft so that
it could be used by the pilot. And there were a lot of problems that
we had with things failing that, when I was a Program Manager, we
hardly ever had a flight where we didn’t have 40 or 50 failures
between the two spacecraft. And we were able to overcome those on
all the flights except Apollo 13.
And so, by just having all these alternate paths, of electrical paths
or hydraulic paths or fuel paths where we could manipulate things,
we were able to overcome these problems and never get down to where
we were on our last system, which would have caused us to come home.
I think those are the main things that we did.
Ward: At what point in Gemini did you begin transitioning to Apollo?
Was that immediately after your flight?
McDivitt: Well, yeah. After Gemini IV, I Capcomed Gemini V. That was
pretty quickly for six or eight weeks probably. And then as soon as
that was over, I went over to Apollo and I took over the overall engineering
for Apollo for the Astronaut Office. So, I left the guidance and navigation
business that I had been doing earlier on; I just took over the whole
thing. Then we had—by that time we had more astronauts, and
they were working some of these other issues.
And then I started spending a awful lot of time out in California,
working on the command module, because the lunar module wasn’t
far enough along yet—although I did do some work there. But
mostly it was on the command module. And then after—I don’t
remember the timeframe a year or six months—we put together
the first Apollo crew. And I was the commander of the backup crew
on that. So, we had Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee as the
prime crime; and I was the commander of the backup crew with Dave
Scott and Rusty [Russell L.] Schweickart.
Ward: And of course, the transition to Apollo also meant a transition
to a new contractor, a new team of industry partners in North American
[Rockwell Corporation] and Grumman [Aircraft Engineering Corporation].
How was that perceived within NASA? What level of confidence did the
astronaut corps have in this new industry team?
McDivitt: Yeah, well, the McDonnell guys were already experienced
when they got to Gemini. They had done Mercury. They’d learned
a lot of things from a management, a manufacturing standpoint in Mercury
that they tried to avoid in Gemini. I understand that some of the
Mercury spacecraft were sort of sent down to the Cape in a basket
of parts, and then they sort of put them together down there. And
that really got the manufacturing flow pretty well messed up.
So, when we did Gemini, there was a major effort to try to get the
spacecraft built at the factory, shipped down to the Cape where all
you had to do was test it, and then put it on a rocket and then you’re
ready to go. Much more—much easier to manufacture something
in the manufacturing facility than it is to manufacture something
in a test facility. So, I think they learned that. And Gemini was
50% bigger than the Mercury. It looked like Mercury in the dimensional
relationships, and the systems weren’t too much different. They
were more sophisticated, but they would—so, it was just a, sort
of the B-model of the Mercury. Whereas Apollo is an entirely different
And quite frankly, North American had a lot of troubles trying to
get this thing going. They were going from being an airplane company
to a spacecraft company—a transition that McDonnell had done
on Mercury on a much, much simpler vehicle. So, we had a lot of difficulties
in design, in testing, and it just took a lot of time. When we finally
got the first Apollo crew together, we used to work eight-hour days
during the normal day doing normal kinds of things, but we tested
the spacecraft 24-hours a day. So, you’d work during the day
and then you’d have shifts at night, probably four- to six-hours
shifts to test the spacecraft. Because the testing just took interminably
And we were testing at the factory, but we were also manufacturing
at the factory. So, we’d get part of it—you’d get
part of it manufactured, and we’d test it. And you’d get
some more manufactured, and we’d test it. It just took an awfully
long time. And we didn’t have good test procedures, and we didn’t
have any flight procedures either. So, that first crew—the prime
crew and the backup crew—we had to write our in-flight procedures
and we had to write—help write a lot of the test procedures
to make sure we were testing the thing that we knew we needed in flight.
Ward: So, how did all that stack up with the astronaut corps and their—and
the level of confidence with this new contractor? Was there a lack
of confidence as you went into the program?
McDivitt: Well, not really. I don’t think the astronaut corps
was involved in it. I think there were six of us involved in it. It
was a prime and backup crew on their first spacecraft. We were the
ones doing all the work. And remember, Gemini was still going on.
The second crew really wasn’t involved in it much to start with.
And so, there was just the six of us. And when I was on Gemini IV
with just a prime crew and a backup crew, when we got into the EVA
stuff and we had a lot of other things going on [Telephone rings,
recorder turned off].
McDivitt: Let’s see. We were talking about—
Ward: We were talking about the level of confidence that you as crewmembers
had with this new contractor, North American.
McDivitt: Yeah. Yeah. When we were the Gemini stuff, the test procedures
we used in the Mercury were not significantly different than in Gemini.
And when we got into Apollo, we were doing all these other things.
And on Gemini, in Gemini IV, when we got around to flying this EVA
thing and all the rush that we had right at the end, we just didn’t
have enough guys. There were four people. So, I asked Deke and whoever
was running the Flight Crew Support Division at the time to see if
they couldn’t dig up some engineers to help us, because four
guys weren’t enough. And so, we had a lead guy and two or three
helpers right towards the end of Gemini IV. So, that’s how the
support team came about for specific flights.
Well, we had something like that on Apollo; but we were getting to
the point where six astronauts and these other guys really weren’t
quite enough. And so, we were really running out of gas as far as
having only 24 hours of daytime, six to all this stuff. And but we
went pretty far along. We went all the way through the first one.
As soon as I got into the next one, Apollo 9, with the lunar module,
there was no way we could do that with six guys. So, we then came
up with this concept of a support, I don’t remember what we
called it, but we had another crew of astronauts, three astronauts,
that sort of did the same things that the primaries and backup crews
did except they were never going to fly. So, they helped us test there.
But we didn’t have that on that first one, and it was just overwhelming.
But I think that the six of us were disappointed that the testing
wasn’t going better, that we were finding so many problems.
But I think in—you know, in the real world that that was what
we should have expected. Gus had worked on the first Gemini. I worked
on the second one. So, we both knew how many problems you could get
into in a new spacecraft. We were just getting into a lot of them
on Apollo, but it was a much, much more sophisticated system.
For instance, I remember one day I was going to check the lighting.
I was just turning the lights back and forth. I was doing that, and
all of a sudden the technician on the outside says, “Hey, the
rocket engine out here is firing!” I mean, it didn’t have
any fuel in it, but you could hear the solenoids going click-click,
click-click, click-click. So, oh my, you know. We fired the rockets
by moving the lights! So, we had what we called electromagnetic interference,
and we had to go back and do that.
We didn’t have anything like that in Gemini. It was too small,
and we didn’t have the sensitivity that we did. But it was a
very complicated problem.
Ward: But it was just part of the process of bringing a new vehicle
McDivitt: Yeah, it was. And then we had—because there was such
a rush to get to the Moon in a certain time that they put together
a design on the Block I spacecraft that we realized early on wasn’t
going to make it to the Moon. We were going to have to do certain
things to it that were going to change the configuration. Not the
exterior aerodynamic shape, but things like the hatch. It was extremely
difficult to get the hatch on or open. We actually had to take it
off. So, we redesigned the hatch. The contraption that opened up the
door on the telescope didn’t work well. It was prone to failure,
and we didn’t want it to fail open. So, we had to design that.
I think we changed that even for the Block I spacecraft.
Some of the instrumentation had to be changed, because you didn’t—you
weren’t going to be making a lunar return reentry at Earth.
You were going to be just doing an Earth orbital reentry, and you
could get by with the instrumentation we had. The fuel tanks were
sized a certain way, and then we decided that that wasn’t going
to be enough fuel in them to do the trip to the Moon and the rendezvouses
and getting back and all that. So, there were a significant number
of changes that were going to go in between Block I and Block II.
Ward: And Block I was perceived as the Earth orbital test vehicle.
McDivitt: It was really going to be the Earth orbital. What we wanted
to do was to get that thing in flight for a ten-day mission or so
to see if it was—how the systems operated. We didn’t expect
them all to operate perfectly well. There were some fairly sophisticated
cooling systems, where the coolant in the tubes froze up. It was sort
of like a selective freezing process. And as these froze up, then
the fluid went through different tubes; and it would heat up more
and then thaw them out. I mean, this was a very, very complicated
thermal control system.
And we had other problems like that. There were internal—environmental
control system was complicated. All the electronics were cooled by
cooling plates. They would put the electronic box under a plate that
had fluid going through it, and you had to seal these two together
with something like grease. And so, it was a very complicated thing.
And we didn’t expect it to go flawlessly. Unfortunately, as
you well know, it got burned up on the pad. So—
Ward: Right. At the Apollo 204 fire, as it was known at that time,
and the loss of Grissom, White, and Chaffee.
McDivitt: Right. Yeah.
Ward: In those accidents, as it was with the Challenger [51-L] accident
years later, the causes seem so clear in 20/20 hindsight. Things,
as you mention, the hatch that was very difficult to open, that opened
inward and made it impossible for the crew to get out when the fire
started. The single-gas oxygen system that provided pure oxygen at
a very high pressure on the launch pad. Those—
McDivitt: Yeah. See, we were doing those same things in Gemini and
Mercury. We could’ve had exactly the same problem with Gemini
and Mercury. We were pressurizing the spacecraft at five psi over
atmospheric, which was 20 psi. We had a 100% oxygen environment. I
did the same test on top of the Gemini that they were doing at the
time that the fire occurred. And we did it on every Gemini spacecraft.
I think we did it on every Mercury spacecraft, too.
Ward: Do you think the reason for that, and the reason that it appeared
so obvious in 20/20 hindsight but was not really apparent at the time,
was that we might have been concentrating so heavily on the environment
we knew was going to be dangerous, i.e., space, and overlooked the
dangers while they were still on the launch pad?
McDivitt: Well, this was a—no, I think it was a—I don’t
think it was—that was not a single reason for it. It was a myriad
of reasons. First, we were designing a new spacecraft. We had all
kinds of stowage problems in the spacecraft. We had all kinds of things
that we were going to have to carry. We had webbing and netting in
there that we knew was a problem, a fire problem. I talked to Joe
[Joseph F.] Shea, the [Apollo] Program Manager, about it and we knew
that that was a problem. And we had plans to change all that stuff
out before this flight. They didn’t quite get to it. And we
didn’t have any idea how fast it would burn.
To this day, nobody knows how the fire started. But we just had a
lot of bad circumstances come together. And some of the North American
people maintain to this day that they were never told that the spacecraft
would ever be tested in this configuration. If they didn’t know
it, they were the only people in the whole world that didn’t
know it. But, you know, everybody had their own idea how this was
going to work, I guess. But it was one of those circumstances. You
had all this flammable material in there and a 100% oxygen environment
at 20 psi. That’s seven times more oxygen than we have in this
room right now. And a lot of things will burn very quickly like that.
Ward: Joe Shea, you alluded to, is the Apollo Spacecraft Program Manager
at the time. And Joe ended up, along with his counterpart at North
American, receiving a lot of the criticism for the accident and ultimately
being replaced. Do you think that was really justified?
McDivitt: No, not at all. Not at all. No, I think the criticism of
both the North American Program Manager and the NASA Program Manager
was totally unjustified. If other people were so smart, why didn’t
they say something? I mean, we had the best engineers that we could
find. We had good crewmembers. We had everybody who knew anything
about space working on this thing. And nobody said anything about
it. So, for them to then focus on just a couple of people and say
that they were at fault was, I think, really idiotic and, well, possibly
looking for scapegoats. But it wasn’t warranted.
Ward: There was another countercurrent going amidst all of this. And
it was the same kind of a current that was flowing at the time of
the Challenger accident, and that was in the press corps, where the
attitude that prevailed was that: if the press had been a little more
vigilant, since it was so clear to everybody following the accident
what the cause was, the press should have been able to figure this
out and alert the world—and NASA—to the fact that they
had a problem.
McDivitt: Well, I think that there’s a—I think that the
press does some good things. I think they do a lot of bad things,
too. And I tend to deal with the press on an individual basis. There
are some good guys, and there are some bad guys. And that was the
way I dealt with them when I was a NASA employee. Of course we had
to, by edict from the Federal Government, deal with them in some way.
But, you know—and I recall one incident where Ted Freeman got
killed in an airplane accident. The first guy that went over to see
his wife was a newsman from one of the Houston newspapers. I’ll
not say which one, because I can’t remember and I don’t
want to accuse one of them of the wrong thing. But he was the first
guy over there; and he figured out that there were so many NASA people
flying; and he could—he went around and he knew who they were.
And he identified just about everybody; and he didn’t see Ted.
So, he came over—so, he went over to his wife’s house,
or to his house, and asked his wife if she knew if Ted had been killed
in an airplane accident. And some time later, Deke and a minister
and I think Dr. [Robert R.] Gilruth showed up; and Faith already knew
that Ted had been killed. Or was suspicious of it.
Well, I dealt with that guy by, at my Gemini IV press conference,
refusing to talk while he was in the room. And—which created
a gigantic stink, as you probably would guess, Doug! And Dr. Gilruth
came over to see me and said, “Jim, we’ve got to talk
with the press.” I said, “I’ll be more than happy
to talk with the press. But I’m not going to talk with that
son of a bitch there,” and you can leave that one in there!
And I wouldn’t!
So, finally we started getting calls from the—Mrs. Hobby, whoever—whatever
paper she owns. Is it The Post? Anyway, she was calling out there,
“You know you’re keeping us out of the press conference?”
and stuff. I said, “Well, if you want to send somebody else
out here, we’ll have another press conference with just them.”
But I wouldn’t deal with him. I—maybe we were at an impasse
for three or four hours, and finally he left. And then I never dealt
with him again; and finally he got fired. So, I don’t go with
that kind of stuff.
But there are a lot of newsmen, I think, that do a good job. There
was a little Irish guy who used to come out and give us a hard time.
I think he was probably gone before you got there.
Ward: Jim Maloney.
McDivitt: Maloney! Right. Maloney was giving us a hard time about
the flagpole. And on Fridays we used to have press days. And one day—one
time I was scheduled to have a interview with Mr. Maloney for a half
hour. And so, I told the schedulers to make sure Maloney had a half
hour at the end of his press conference with me. So, we went through
the press conference, and I was watching my watch. And we finally
got to the half-hour mark, and I said, “Okay, the—,”
you know, “it’s over.” And we had a NASA PA [Public
Affairs] guy there, and he said, “Yeah, the interview’s
And so—Jim Maloney. And so, we stopped and I said, “Do
you want to get a cup of coffee or do you want to start the next one?”
And he said, “Well, what next one?” I said, “Well,
I’ve got you scheduled for an interview with me.” He said,
“Well, what are you talking about?” I said, “But,
Jim, you’re here interviewing us all the time. I have scheduled
an interview between the two of us where I’m the questioner
and you’re the—going to do the answering.” “Well,
I—” I said, “Jim, it was scheduled. Now, do you
want a cup of coffee or not?” “No, I don’t want
a drink.” We sat down, so I said, “Okay, now why the hell
are you going after us on the flagpole?” “Well, what do
you mean? I—”
So, we had a half hour press conference with Mr. Maloney. We were
finally told that he had been instructed by his boss to just raise
hell out there because he wasn’t—they weren’t getting
something they wanted!
So, anyway—I had good relationships with some guys than others.
But quite frankly, when you get back to this, Should the press have
known something about the problem with the solid rocket? No, there
wasn’t anybody smart enough to know anything about that! And
I think the press does the country a terrible disservice on a lot
of occasions. A good service at other times. But sometimes they just
got out of control.
Ward: Getting back to the effects of the fire. It—you mentioned
that you were the backup crew to Grissom, White, and Chaffee. After
the fire, a lot of changes were made in crew assignments. There were
hardware problems that changed that. Talk a little bit about what
happened to the flow, the assignment of the crews, and how you ended
up next on Apollo 9.
McDivitt: Okay. Well, you know, there was even a—[Recorder turned
Ward: Jim, we were talking about the effect that the Apollo fire had
and some of the hardware problems with—the vehicle had and crew
assignments and the juggling of crew assignments, and how you ended
up then next on the Apollo 9 mission.
McDivitt: Sure. Yeah. Well, it’s kind of complicated. You know,
when I was the backup commander of the first Apollo mission, there
was a second Block I Apollo mission scheduled also. It was crewed
by Wally and his crew as a prime crew, and I don’t even remember
who the backup crew was. And one day they were doing a pressure test
on the service module for that vehicle, and—unmanned, of course,
it was done in a pit—and it blew up! So, all of a sudden we
found ourselves without two Block I spacecraft. Just one Block I spacecraft.
At that time, I was taken off of being commander of the backup crew
and put on as prime crew on the first lunar module flight. Wally Schirra’s
crew was moved from being prime crew on this Block I spacecraft over
to backup crew on Gus’s flight. That was the first crew shift.
And we didn’t have any numbers for these flights. They were
all lettered in those days. There was a C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, L—and—
The C flight was a Earth orbital flight. The D flight was a Earth
orbital flight with the lunar module. The E flight was a deeper space
flight with the lunar module. The F flight was the fly out to the
Moon, practice going down, but don’t land and come back. And
then the—I guess G was the landing flight. Then H was the flights
that we flew in exploratory mode. So, we—the C flights went
from two to one. Then I was on the back—then I was the prime
on the lunar module thing.
So, it took us a while to figure out what all the problems were that
had caused the fire; and when we got that sort of sorted out, I moved
from the command module that would’ve been the command module
for the first lunar module flight over to the next command module.
And that first command module then became the command module that
Wally and his crew flew for the first time. So, now I was on the second
Block II command module, but the first lunar module. Then we started
having a lot of trouble getting the lunar module through tests. The
same problem that we had on the command module; the same problem that
we had on Mercury and Gemini.
We got to the point where we decided that the wiring in the lunar
module, LM-2, was not safe to be flown. They were using an ultra-lightweight
concept where they had a wire coming out of a black box; and instead
of putting it into a plug, we were soldering it together using shrink
sleeve. Shrink sleeving is a plastic tube that you put over a wire,
put the two wires together, you solder them, you move the shrink sleeving
down over the soldered joint as insulation heat—using heat,
kind of like on a hair dryer, and it shrinks down and grabs a hold
of it. Well, if you have a solder joint that’s not a good solder
joint, the shrink sleeving will hold it together and you’ll
have an intermittent electrical contact. We had intermittent electrical
contacts throughout the lunar module. And they’d work one day
and wouldn’t work the next day.
So, finally we decided we had to go back to plugs. And they—at
that time, the lunar module was pretty far through testing. We’d
been testing it for a year or so. Decided to send it down to the Cape,
run it through the flow down there, and then put it in the Smithsonian
[National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.], which is where
it is now. So, then I went over to the LM-3 vehicle. At that time,
that put a gap in the flight; and they—NASA management just
decided to fly another flight that wasn’t in the plan, that
would be out around the Moon and they’d come back down. And
Ward: That became Apollo 8.
McDivitt: —that became Apollo 8. And that wasn’t a lettered
mission. When that got stuck in there, we then—and that would’ve
been the E mission that that crew was the—came down there. So,
then we combined all the D and E mission objectives into the flight
I was flying, which we still called D. We then just eliminated E.
So, we took one out and put one in, and went on with that. So, then
after that the crew assignments stayed pretty much the same. And no
more jockeying around on the spacecraft either.
Ward: And, of course, all of that was going on, at the same time,
or at least in part in parallel with the recovery from the fire—
McDivitt: That’s correct.
Ward: —and you and Frank Borman, along with George [M.] Low
who had been named the Apollo Program Manager after Shea left really
carried a tremendous amount of that burden of getting the confidence
back in the contractor and the vehicle back in operation.
McDivitt: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. You know, in support of Joe Shea and some
of his ideas and what he was doing—a lot of that stuff was already
in work. I mean, this wasn’t something that we genned up after
the fire. There was a Block II spacecraft. As a matter of fact, I
was testing it at the time that the fire occurred. So, there was a
Block II spacecraft that was significantly different than the Block
We still didn’t have all of the flammable material out. And
so, we had to go back and do—redo that. And then we started
looking for spark initiators that could have caused this problem.
We never did find them. You know, we never knew exactly what caused
the fire; so, we didn’t know exactly what we were trying to
fix. But we—that spacecraft was a lot different—the remodeled
Block II was a lot different than the original Block II. But the original
Block II was a lot different than the Block I spacecraft.
Ward: You alluded to the fact that we added a mission, which became
Apollo 8, the first manned flight to the Moon. What was your reaction
at the time when you became aware that they were—on just the
first flight of the Saturn V with a crew on it, then only the second
flight with the Apollo spacecraft, were contemplating sending it to
McDivitt: Remember we talked earlier about, you can’t go—you
can get there going—using little itty-bitty steps, but it takes
you a couple of centuries. And so, we were going big steps. And that
didn’t seem like any bigger step than any other of the big steps.
It didn’t seem illogical. We had—there were a lot of things
that we had to do.
When we sat down early in the Apollo Program and laid out what the
C mission ought to do, what the D mission ought to do, what the E
mission, the F mission, the G mission, what all those things had to
do, they weren’t assigned a flight number. People were assigned
a mission letter. And we would’ve flown C five times if we’d
had to, to get the spacecraft to where we could go on to the next
mission. C turned out to be okay, so we could do this other one. And
the same thing with the lunar module.
If we had flown a first lunar module and it wouldn’t have worked,
the next mission would not have been F. It would have been C or D
all over again, or whatever it was that we needed. We might’ve
made some modifications, but it turned out that the only modification
we made in the whole plan, from the way it was laid out originally,
was that we eliminated E and put [Apollo] 8 in there, which didn’t
have a letter.
I mean, it’s marvelous to think back on it! That we were—you
know, that we were that farsighted and that it all worked out that
way. Because I know a lot of times I’d come home from work and
say to my wife, “There’s no way we’re ever going
to get to the Moon. It’s just impossible!” We were never
going to get the weight on the lunar module down low enough, and I
just never thought we were going to get it light enough to do what
it needed to do.
Ward: Were you surprised that that mission went as relatively smoothly
as it did?
McDivitt: Which mission?
Ward: Apollo 8.
McDivitt: No. No, I thought it would go that way. The one I thought—the
one I was most concerned about was Apollo 11, because you had to have
so many things in a serial path that had to work. Apollo 8 was much
simpler. It had just a command module and a service module. And it
went—once it went, it was either going to work or it wasn’t
going to work. But when you add the lunar module in there, you had
all that stuff together, that was a—you know, that string of
things that had to all be correct to make it get to the proper ending
was pretty difficult. I thought that would be the most difficult mission.
Ward: Well, and that’s where your flight, Apollo 9, comes in.
Because you had to put all those elements together and prove that
McDivitt: Yeah. Yeah. As a matter of fact, I think it was quite fortuitous
that I had a chance to fly on Apollo 9 and then became the Apollo
Spacecraft Program Manager. Because the things I did on 9, which was
really an engineering test flight, that stuff came into play so much
more for me as the Program Manager, later on, when we were running
into difficulties in the—when we had problems with the spacecraft
when we were at the Moon or doing some other things that I had done
all those tests myself. Personally. And so, I knew the difficulty
of doing something. Like on Apollo 13, when we had to get it back.
The star alignments and stuff like that, I had already done that myself.
Rusty and I had done it.
On Apollo 16, they had a—we had a problem with a actuator for
the service module engine. It was oscillating. I’d already flown
this whole stack where we deliberately oscillated an engine to gimbal
like that. And I knew what it felt like inside the spacecraft. And
fortunately, it had—and so, all that stuff that it—it
was fortunate I had done it myself. So, when I got around to making—having
to make decisions on those later Apollo landings, it made me more
confident that the decision I was making to go forward was really
Ward: In some respects, in comparison with other Apollo missions,
Apollo 9 sometimes gets overlooked as being a rather mundane flight.
And yet there are those who believe it may have been one of the more
dangerous missions we flew, and certainly one of the most important
to the program. Kind of run through for us what you accomplished on
McDivitt: Okay. Well, you know, I don’t have any problem with
how it’s looked at by other people. I really don’t care!
And I could see why they would; you know, it didn’t land on
the Moon. And so, it’s hardly part of Apollo. But the lunar
module was, as I mentioned earlier, key to the whole program. And
trying to get it light enough to fly was a real challenge. We got
to the point where we were filing little blousons off of castings
and things like that to get the weight down.
So, the main thing was that we got a chance to fly the lunar module
to see if it really worked. We had a few minor glitches on the descent
engine, as I recall, when we first started it up. And, oh, it worked
fine. And the fact that the rendezvous worked okay. The computers
worked. The radar worked. I mean, the—we did a damn good job
of engineering it, because we really didn’t have very many big
problems with the spacecraft. It all went together well. But we had
to make sure that it went together well and that it would work, because
it was really a flimsy little spacecraft.
The first time—I’ve seen a lot of models. And they had
solid sides to them and all that stuff. The first time Rusty and I
went up to Grumman to do a storage review—a storage review is
something you do before you really solidify where you’re going
to put everything, and it’s so you can still make some changes—and
I hadn’t been up there for a while. I was busy on the command
modules at the time. And so, I went back up there and we went in the
White Room. And we had hundreds of people, like NASA normally has.
And we went over to this vehicle sitting there in the corner, and
we had two different kinds of vehicles. We had non-flight vehicles
that were heavy construction; we had the flight-weight vehicles. And
we go over there, and we get in the spacecraft, and we crawl in. And
I can remember the first thing we did is we knocked off the shield
around the environmental control system, which was a thing about as
thick as a piece of paper and made out of plastic.
And so, we get in there and we start checking the stowage. We weren’t
checking the spacecraft. We were just checking to see if everything
fit. Every time we turned around, something else broke! And I’m
pretty mild-mannered and I don’t get excited when things aren’t
going right. But after we were doing this for about five or six hours,
and everything we touched fell off the wall or broke or it did something!
Finally I got on the radio and I said, “Damn it, you guys! We’ve
got—” you know, “we’ve got 200 people here.
We’re all out here. We’ve been here all day long. We’re—and
we’ve got this crappy training vehicle out here that, you know,
we ought to get something that more resembles what the heck we’re
going to fly with in space instead of this junk that we’ve got
here! And, you know, this—”
I went on and—went on like that. And then I shut up, and there’s
this long pause. And finally somebody comes on the intercom and says,
“Jim, that is the flight vehicle.” I looked at Rusty and
he looked at me, and we said, “Oh my God! We’re actually
going to fly something like this?” So, it was really chintzy.
I mean the outside is Mylar; and, I mean, it was like cellophane and
tin foil put together with Scotch tape and staples! I mean, it really
is built like that.
Ward: Of course, a lot of that’s a reflection of the fact that
it doesn’t have to fly in the atmosphere.
McDivitt: Yeah, it doesn’t have to fly in the atmosphere. They
did go and beef up stuff on the inside though, because it was just
really falling apart. But anyway, the lunar module worked out great.
We made very few changes to it for the original missions. We made
a lot of changes to it later on for the longer mission. And the command
module worked out well, too. You know, we flew one flight—Earth
orbital—then we flew it to the Moon. So, it—while we had
a lot of trouble up front in getting these things designed, built,
and tested, when we actually got them into flight they worked just
the way they were supposed to.
Ward: You did a—one other thing on your mission, Apollo 9, that
ended up having some very important significance later on. That was
the docked DIPS burn as it was called at the time. Docking with the
lunar module docked to the command module and proving that you could
control that whole stack while thrusting with the lunar module engine.
McDivitt: Oh. Right. Yeah, that was like—that was what I was
saying earlier. We did a bunch of tests that we—that helped
me a lot when we were—when I was the Program Manager. Right.
We did a dock burn with the lunar module. We did a bunch of oscillating
tests with the command module. We did an EVA. We checked all the alternative
methods of doing star alignments. We had multiple burns on the descent
stage. Throttled the engine up and down through regimes it probably
was never throttled at when it landed in the Moon. And it worked out
Ward: And in particular on Apollo 13, after the oxygen tank exploded
enroute to the Moon and suddenly the lunar module had to take over
a lot of the command module’s role, where would we have been
if you had not done the things that you did on 9?
McDivitt: Yeah. We’d have been a lot—it would have been
a lot dicier! Yeah, because we had to work out those procedures for
9. And we worked them out and we knew they were going to work. I mean,
they weren’t easy. It wasn’t easy to do. The guys flying
the spacecraft had a tough time doing that, but we knew they were
going to work because we had done them. Yeah, that was a interesting
Ward: Of course after 9, instead of getting back in line for another
Apollo mission, you moved into management, into the Apollo Program
Management Office. How did you make that decision to get out of being
an active astronaut and going into program management?
McDivitt: Yeah. After I flew Apollo 9, it was apparent to me that
I wasn’t going to be the first guy to land on the Moon, which
was important to me. And being the second or third guy wasn’t
that important to me. Now I say it, “It was apparent.”
I mean, it looked like we were going to be successful. I mean, things
were really going along well. Much better than we expected. And I
thought that lunar module was kind of the key to the whole thing.
If it worked, we had a chance. If it didn’t work, you know,
we’d be at it for another two or three decades.
And so, I had people calling me and asking me to do different things.
I think the Air Force wanted me to come back and run a big space program
they had. I forget what it was. The MOL [Manned Orbiting Laboratory]
Program, I think it was. Maybe it was something else. I don’t
remember it. And like I was telling you earlier, when I was asked
to do the Dyna-soar thing, I went and looked. So, I remember General
Phillips said—I’d just gone back to the Air Force and
he was running the MOL Program, and he called me and asked if I would—he
was running all of Research and Development for the Air Force. He
asked me if I’d run the MOL Program. “I don’t know.
Let me think.” So, I flew out to California and talked to a
bunch of Second Lieutenants who would tell me the truth! And I concluded
that that bugger wasn’t going to make it either! So, I went
back and told him, “No.” And he said, “Now, Jim,
I know that that’s going to fly. I just talked to the Secretary
of the Air Force today. That’s the number one priority program.”
Anyway, a couple of months later it was canceled.
And then I had an opportunity to go be the Secretary of the Space
Council, and the Air Force wanted me to come back and do some other
things. And then I had an opportunity to fly command Apollo 13. And
then George Low called me up and said, “Jim, I’d like
to talk to you.” So, I went over to talk to him. And he said,
“I’m only going to be the Program Manager for one more
flight. And after that—” or the lunar landing. “As
soon as the lunar landing takes place,” he says, “I’m
going to leave here.” He said, “I’ve been offered
a job as the [NASA] Deputy Administrator. And we can’t talk
about that now, because it’s a political appointee job”
and all that junk. “But,” he said, “I’d like
to have you replace me as the Program Manager.” Hmm. I said,
“Well, let me think about that. That’s more interesting
than some of these other things.”
And so, I went home and talked to my wife about it. She suggested
I fly the Apollo 13 flight. And anyway, I thought about it for a long
time. And finally I decided that that’s what I wanted to do.
So, I went and told him, “Yeah, I’d do that.” And
Ward: Be the Program Manager.
McDivitt: Yeah, I’d be the Program Manager. But we couldn’t—but
we had to disguise it in a way that it wasn’t obvious. And so,
I took a job which we created called the Deputy Program Manager for
Lunar Exploration, or something like that. So, in that job then I
led the team that sort of redesigned the command module and lunar
module to do the lunar exploration stuff that we did on 15, 16, and
17. And then as soon as we landed on Apollo 11, we were going to make
And then because of the political appointee stuff, it took—it
dragged on and on and on; and finally George and I decided that, “Look,
you know, if I’m going to do this job, I’ve got to do
it now! I’m not going to do it—I’m not going to
start it last.” So, he said, “Yeah,” so he went
and did something else on a temp—on an interim basis and I took
over the Program for 12 through 16.
Ward: What was your impression or recollection of George Low?
McDivitt: A great guy. A really great guy. Well, he was the right
guy at the right time. We were—there was a lot of unrest, uncertainty,
finger-pointing, and things like that after the fire. Unfortunately.
You know, like I said earlier, I don’t think it was anybody’s
fault. I think it was part of the ballgame, and I’m surprised
we didn’t kill more guys. But he came in and pulled the NASA
team together and solidified the relationship between the contractors
and NASA. And we got back on—got going again.
Ward: Did you consciously follow his style when you left? Or were
your own person? I’m sure you had your own approach to managing
that was different from his.
McDivitt: Well—yeah! It sure was! I believe nobody does things
like I do and other people don’t do things like other people
do. As a matter of fact, when I took over his—I moved into his
office and I had a executive assistant, secretary, assistant secretary,
technical assistant, and an administrative assistant. Well, hell,
it took me all day long to figure out what to tell them to do to keep
them busy! So, you know, finally I decided: “I don’t need
an executive assistant.” So, I didn’t talk to her anymore.
And after a while, she got the message, and she applied for another
job and she left. She was a very nice lady. I don’t even remember
her name anymore. But she was a very nice lady. But I couldn’t
cope with all those people hanging around. And so, she left.
And then I had this technical assistant, who was a—whose name
was Ron Kobiche. I didn’t need a technical assistant. I didn’t
want a technical assistant. So, the guy who was running the Systems
Division, whatever we called it, left and I moved Ron down there.
He had a real job, and he was—I still used him as my technical
assistant. When I needed some technical information, I went to him
and he got it for me.
I had this administrative guy. We had a lot of administration. But
he didn’t need to be my administration guy, so we sort of put
him over running all the administration, which was sort of—he
was supporting George and then when he did the other stuff, and I
had—my part went to zero and the rest of it went out. So, I
got rid of them.
Then I had a secretary, an assistant secretary. That’s how I
ran it. And I think my secretary was 23 years old, and my assistant
was 18! But we—and as a matter of fact, when I got—we
had a different management structure on Apollo than we did on Gemini,
and I used to have management consultants from all over the world
come over to try to figure out how we ran this thing. And they always
wanted to know: Who were my key people? And I told them, well, I had
the Command Module Deputy Program Manager, the Lunar Module Deputy
Program Manager, a Systems Engineering Chief, and my secretary. “And
your secretary?” I said, “Yeah! My secretary.” Her
name was Suzie, and she ran the office like an iron fist.
And we really needed to. It was tough to get everything done in 24
hours. And like I said, I had a great Command Module Program Manager,
Aaron Cohen, and a great Lunar Module Program Manager, Owen [E.] Maynard—or
Ward: Owen [G.] Morris. Owen Morris.
McDivitt: Owen Morris. Yeah. And Ron Kobiche. And Suzie Cardenas.
Those four people supported me and made it easy for me.
Ward: One of the things that happened during your tenure as Program
Manager was the solidification of the evolution of the science program.
And I recall early in Apollo, you really were very reticent to put
a scientist up in a press conference because you could almost expect
that they would criticize the Program and the science as much as support
it. Toward the end of the program, that very much changed. And I think—
McDivitt: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that was never my attitude. That was never
my attitude. As a matter of fact, we had—I had one other Deputy
Program Manager—the Deputy Program Manager for Science—and
I did that myself for most of the Program. Dick [Richard S.] Johnston
did it for a short period of time; and then when he left to take over
his other job, I did it myself. And so, I was never opposed to the
science, but I was always very strongly in favor of it. Now some of
the scientists were nuts! But as far as the—you know, why we
were going to the Moon? It was really a scientific expedition. It
wasn’t a “gee whiz!” expedition. And so, I got vitally
involved in site selection; and when we redesigned the spacecraft,
I led that team. Guys that put the stuff in there.
And I remember one time asking everybody about the TV camera on the
rover. I said, “Well, we’re going to have an opportunity
to put this TV camera on it. Who would like to support that?”
And the R&D [research and development] guys are—R&E
[research and engineering], or whatever they called it, they didn’t
want to support it. And flight controllers didn’t want it. And
the scientists, they were kind of lukewarm. And the Public Affairs
[PA] guys didn’t even support it! I mean, I said, “To
hell with all of you! I’m going to put it on there anyway!”
And then, of course, PA was up to here with it. Engineering was up
to here with it. Scientists were up to here with it. Everybody was
fighting for it! But it was a—you know, I always thought that,
you know, that was the reason we were doing it.
Ward: Well, you really took some concrete steps, did you not, to improve
the relationship with the scientific community?
McDivitt: Yeah. Yeah, I did. You know, they were—they used to
get as excited in some of their things like site selections and other
things like that. I mean, those generated as much heat as the battles
that we used to have between the flight controllers and the astronauts,
or the engineering guys and the flight controllers, the engineering
guys and the astronauts, or the program guys and the astronauts.
As a matter of fact, I remember one meeting—as a matter of fact,
it was the only time I did it at NASA—we were involved in a
site selection. And some of the scientists would like to land on this
four-inch square on top of a mountain peak. And of course, we weren’t
going to try anything like that. One of the guys, whose name will
go unmentioned, got so obnoxious at the meeting I finally said to
him, “Okay,”—his name wasn’t Charlie, but
let’s call him Charlie—I said, “Okay, Charlie, we
don’t do that in here. You go outside and sit. When you feel
that you can talk like a normal human being, you can come back in
here and join in with the rest of it.”
And so, he thought I was kidding. And I said, “I’m not
joking. Get out of here!” “You can’t get me out
of here. I’m from Headquarters!” And I said, “Get
out of here!” So, he left. And 20 minutes later, he came back
in; and we conducted—we continued the meeting without him. And
then when he got back, we continued the meeting with him. And we finally
came to a reasonable compromise on what we’d do. And—
Ward: Even though—
McDivitt: I had to do that with the accident investigation team on
Apollo 13 one time, too. When we got Apollo 13 back, we’d all
been up—not all of us, but almost all of us had been up for,
what? four or five days. And so, I sent everybody home and said we’d
reconvene, I think, on Monday. I think we landed on Saturday or Friday.
I don’t remember which. “Everybody go home and get rested,
and we’ll start the accident investigation.” I got a call
from NASA Headquarters in my office just before I left, saying, “Well,
we’ve got to reconvene—we’ve got to convene that
accident board right now!” I said, “You guys got to be
out of your minds! You know, some of us haven’t had any sleep
for three or four days!” “Well, we’ve got to do
it. You know, politically, we can’t put this thing off. We’ve
got to get on top of it.” And so on. Anyway, I brought the guys
And then a few days later, we got this super team that came down that
was headed up by a fellow who was the NASA Center Director at Lewis
[Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio], I forget his name now [Bruce T.
Lundin]. And they came down and with a bunch of Center Directors and
Air Force Generals and—I was still a Colonel at that time. And
so, this was going to be the big super investigating team. Well, we
had our own investigating team of hundreds of people. And so, I used
to have a senior management accident review meeting once a day. And
then the guys led by Don [Donald D.] Arabian were—had a meeting
all the time. And they would get together once a day, and then—and
the RCS [Reaction Control System] guys would talk to the electrical
guys, and the electrical guys would talk to the inertial guidance,
and they’d all be at the same meeting.
They’d get up and make a report. Everybody then got caught up
to date. And this Center Director wanted to know if—or told
me he was going to have his team sit in on those other meetings. I
said, “Well, you can sit in there under one set of rules; and
that is, you don’t ask any questions. You don’t make a
peep! You sit there. This is a meeting of the workers; and if you’re
going to start talking, you’re going to interrupt it.”
So, he said, “That sounds fair enough.” And so, I’d
go over there and I’d sit and listen. And we got in there one
day and one of the Air Force Generals started asking a question, and
then another NASA Center Director started asking questions. I got
up and I went over and got this guy from Lewis. We went outside, and
I said, “Get your damn team out of there! I told you what the
rules were. You’re interrupting it.” “You can’t
tell me what to do.” I said, “Like hell I can’t!
Now you get them out of there!”
So, anyway, he went and got his team out. And I said, “You’re
welcome to come to my management team meeting and ask all the questions
you want.” But in crucial times like that, you can’t have
a bunch of interlopers interrupting what the hell’s really going
on. So, anyway, that was this—we had a different management
style. George [Low] was not quite so bad!
Ward: More diplomatic.
McDivitt: He was more diplomatic, I guess. Well, we had a lot to do
and we needed to get it done.
Ward: Getting back to the Apollo science program: At least my own
perception is that Apollo didn’t begin as a scientific program
the way [President John F.] Kennedy outlined it, sold it to the public,
to the Congress. It was not perceived as a science program. And yet
after Apollo 11, that really became the strong thrust of it.
McDivitt: Yeah. I remember sitting down at the Cape with General [Samuel
C.] Phillips, who was the [NASA Headquarters Apollo] Program Director,
and somebody else, I don’t remember who it was, I think it was
near the time that we were flying Apollo 10. And the subject came
up that, if we landed Apollo 11 where we thought we were going to
land it, where should we land Apollo 12? Nobody had ever focused on
the second landing! And so, we started talking about that. And we
already had this ALSEP [Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package] thing.
It was being designed, but it wasn’t really included much in
the Apollo Program. It was sort of being designed over here on the
side. And the stuff that was going to go on the lunar surface and
what we were going to do with it was sort of a big question mark.
And so, as he and I were chatting about that—I was already the
Deputy Program Manager, or whatever we called it, for Lunar Surface
Exploration—he said, “You know, we’d better start
figuring out how we’re going to do this stuff and what comes
next!” And so, that’s—we really were sort of getting
our wheels ground up, rotating. But up until Apollo 11, the mission
was, as the President said, it was to land a man on the Moon and return
him safely to Earth. And that didn’t say anything about science.
Ward: So, it really was impressive the way that whole science program
McDivitt: Indeed. Yeah. The scientists really, as a group, were really
good guys. And, you know, they knew what they wanted. Gene Shoemaker
headed up most of the geology stuff, although there were a lot of
individual principal investigators. Some of those guys were a pain
in the neck once in a while; but by and large, they were a good group
of guys, trying to get the job done. I remember we had one guy who
was very outspoken about the dust problem on the Moon. How we were
going to have 200 or 300 ft of dust. And after we landed there, I
saw him one day and I said, “Hey, kind of missed that one, didn’t
you?” “No, no, no! I was right! I was right!” I
said, “Right, like hell!” I said, “The dust was
only about like that.” “Yeah, but there was dust there,”
he said. “I just missed it by a little bit!” He had the
dust—he had the lunar module disappearing in the dust! 200 ft
Ward: Was there any concern he might have been right when [Edwin E.
“Buzz”] Aldrin [Jr.] I think it was, called out, as they
were about 10 or 20 ft above the Moon, that they were kicking up some
dust before landing?
McDivitt: Well, everybody—I mean, you know, we weren’t
exactly in the dark about what the Moon looked like because we had,
I think it was the Surveyor spacecraft that took pretty good photos
of it. And we had this other spacecraft that flew right straight into
the Moon. I remember being out at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory;
Pasadena, California] the first crash that they had on the Moon, where
the [Ranger] spacecraft flew right straight in the Moon. It took a
picture, transmitted it; took another picture, transmitted it; took
another picture and transmitted it. And the last picture, you know,
was only half a picture because it hit the Moon. And you could—I
mean, you could guess that it wasn’t really deep. And then we
had this other one that actually landed on the Moon that had a scoop
on it [Surveyor]. So, we knew that there wasn’t a lot of dust.
Ward: You were pretty confident the lunar module wasn’t going
to get buried in it.
McDivitt: Yeah. That was not one of my big concerns.
Ward: Do you think people today remember or appreciate just how difficult
and dangerous Apollo really was?
McDivitt: Well, people in those days didn’t appreciate how difficult
and dangerous it was! I mean, we made it look way too easy. When I
got into the program, I figured we’d try five, six, eight, ten
times before we ever had a successful one. I had no idea in the world
it would run as smoothly as it did. You know, that’s why we
had the lettered missions. We had—we were going to go on C until
we got C done. And then we were going to go on D until we got it done.
Then to E. And then F. And then G. The fact that we didn’t even
do one of them, I mean, yeah, it was extremely successful.
Ward: At the time the crews were assigned, do you think that Deke
Slayton, NASA management had a strong inkling that Neil Armstrong’s
crew would be the one to land on the Moon?
McDivitt: I don’t think so. I think there was a—I think
when Joe Shea was there—I don’t know this as a fact, but
I think when Joe Shea was there, there was a certain alignment of
who was going to fly what, when, that might have been different than
what Deke thought. I’m not sure Deke ever knew that. And we
can’t ask them today, can we? Then after the fire and Joe left,
I think George Low—we can’t ask him either, can we?—didn’t
have—didn’t want to take on that responsibility.
And it sort of went over to Deke. And then I think he just put those
crews together, and they were just going to spring up and it was going
to be more happenstance than anything else. And, you know, and if
we tried these flights a number of times and they weren’t working,
we wouldn’t—we might not have landed until Apollo 20!
And so, nobody knew until we got started getting close.
And that’s why I said after I flew on Apollo 9, it looked like
I wasn’t going to get a shot at that because we were being too
successful! I should have screwed up Apollo 9, hunh? No, that’s
my impression of it. And the guys you’d have to ask are Deke
and George Low and Joe Shea and Dr. Gilruth maybe. And, you know,
most of those people you can’t talk to anymore.
Ward: None of them are—
McDivitt: And I was 70 last week!
Ward: Were you involved in the decision at the end of Apollo, at the
end of the program, to end the mission at 17 rather than continue
on with the hardware we had 18, 19, and 20?
McDivitt: No, I was adamantly opposed to that. And everybody knew
it. And nobody asked me. And I think it was unfortunate. You know,
we had this tremendous investment. We had probably $30 billion plus
of 1962 dollars invested in Apollo at that time. We had the command
modules built. We had a number of the lunar modules under construction.
I think we had lunar modules up through Apollo 25 under construction.
Some of them were just a few pieces, you know; but then as you got
closer back down to 17, there were more and more of them. And we had—let’s
see—yeah, we had 20—up through 20 all in, contracted for,
and everything was ready to go.
We were even looking at reusing the command modules after we dumped
them in the ocean. I spent six months trying to figure out how to
do that, and I finally decided it was totally unsafe, so that we could
continue the program. And we even looked at landing on the back side
of the Moon, putting satellites up in orbit, and that was too hairy.
I don’t think we should have ever done that. But we had all
these other things. And it was—you know, it was all there. I
mean, it didn’t cost much to fly one more flight. And then we
I think that NASA top management just ran out of adrenaline, and they—you
know, NASA’s been accused of this a lot, and I think it’s
true, is that they want to get on with the next program. But I think
that there were certain people who got the manned space program going
who were afraid we were going to kill somebody and it would jeopardize
the rest of the program.
Killing somebody on that—in that program was something that
was so very highly likely that we, you know—you had to sort
of accept that at the beginning. And to start worrying about it at
the end, I think, was a abdication of your responsibility. And they
did cut it from, you know, it went up to 20. And they cut 19 and 20
out I think it was, at one time. And then we had an 18 programmed.
Then we cut the 18 out. I think a lot of people would have liked to
cut— [Recorder turned off.]
The contracted spacecraft on the lunar module went out to 25. The—one
of the conceptual spacecraft went out to 25. The contracted for went
out through Apollo 20. And when we started cutting the programs back,
they didn’t cut from 20 back to 17. They cut either 20 to 19
out at one time, and then later 18. Or we cut 20 out and then 18 and
19. I don’t remember the order. But we cut two out at one time,
and one out at another time to get us back to where we were. And quite
frankly, I think that a lot of people would have just as soon seen
us end the program in the 12, 13, 14 area and not do any of the other
ones, because it was very dangerous.
They didn’t want to lose a spacecraft. They didn’t want
lose a crew. And they were afraid that it would jeopardize the future
of the whole space program. But I don’t—I personally don’t
think it would have. I think that a lot of people were—most
of the people in the program were—would have easily accepted,
this sounds kind of hard but would have easily accepted a loss of
a crew and still continued on with the program because I think when
we all got into it, we expected something like that. It never occurred
except for the fire, but I know I personally expected a lot of failures,
maybe losing crews, along the way. And if you didn’t think that
was going to happen, you shouldn’t even have been in the program.
So, it was really unfortunate that we didn’t continue on. I
think we could have gained really great scientific knowledge up through
25. I mean, you look at a face—look at the picture of the Moon
and there’s a few little dots on it. That’s hardly—just
think what that would have looked like if we had two times that many,
or even more than two times that many, which would have been easy
Ward: And so, what you’re saying is that: the public perception
today that the Apollo Program was curtailed at the point it was because
Congress cut the funding really isn’t the total story.
McDivitt: No. I don’t think so at all. I think it was a lack
of drive on the part of NASA management and a concern over killing
Ward: And the damage—
McDivitt: It shouldn’t have been a concern, because that should
have been a concern the whole way through.
Ward: So, you think the desire to get on with the Shuttle Program
and Space Station were factors?
McDivitt: You know, I think so. Yeah, I think so. I had a lot of difficulties
keeping the Apollo money in Apollo. I really got crosswise with the
Manned Spacecraft Center management on a number of occasions over
spending Apollo money. In those days, before I took over the program,
every dollar I think that was spent at the Manned Spacecraft Center
was Apollo money. And when I took over the program, we were already—that
budget had already been set for the year. And so, I didn’t have
to deal with setting the budget.
My first budget exercise, I found that three-quarters of the Engineering
and Development Directorate’s money was Apollo money, and it
wasn’t being used on Apollo. That the Flight Operations money
was being diverted to shuttle and Skylab. The same thing with the
Flight Crew money was being diverted out of Apollo. I think we even
mowed the lawn with Apollo money. And I got in a lot of very heated
arguments with everybody else on the Center who wanted the Apollo
money; and it seemed to me that it was very shortsighted planning
where you didn’t have—because Apollo was going to end.
And when it ended were we going to shut the Center down? And I didn’t
think we would, and I didn’t think that we should.
And it seemed to me that we ought to have an institutional budget
for the institution of the Manned Spacecraft Center, which took care
of the facilities, mowing the lawn, paying the electric bill, you
know, the salaries for the administrative people, and the infrastructure
of the Center. And then if we were going to have a Skylab Program,
we ought to have a Skylab budget. If we’re going to have a Shuttle
Program, we ought to have a shuttle budget.
And quite frankly, I think that the people pushing shuttle were not
telling the truth about what shuttle was really going to cost. They
didn’t have approval for it. They were being overly optimistic
on how often it could fly; overly optimistic on what it would cost.
I think they deceived themselves, significantly; deceived Congress.
And they totally screwed up the Shuttle Program because it was years
late. It was billions and billions of dollars overrun. And they didn’t
have the guts to go forward with a budget that dealt with shuttle!
The same thing, they didn’t have a budget that went forward
with the Skylab Program. And so, we got into some very, very heated
arguments. And to the point where the Chief Financial Officer—I
don’t know what the heck we called him in those days—from
Engineering and Development came down to me in my first budget review
and presented this budget to me of what was in Apollo and what was
in the other things.
And I wasn’t as stupid as he thought I was, and I said to—looked
at it for about 15 minutes and finally I said, “Look, this is
a total fabricated lie. Now take it back upstairs. I’m giving
you one more chance. You take it back upstairs”—or downstairs,
wherever it was—“and do an honest budget.” And he
said, “Well, you know, [mumbles].” I said, “You’ve
got one more chance.” And so, he says, “Okay.” So,
he went. He came back a week or so later, presented another budget
to me, and it was a lie also. I threw him out of my office and I said,
“You are never, ever to come back into the Apollo Spacecraft
Program Office again! You are an out-and-out liar!” And so,
he left. And Max [Maxime A.] Faget [Director of Engineering and Development]
called me and said, “You know, Jim, this is a budget.”
I said, “Max, it’s a goddamn lie! And so, I won’t
accept it.” And so, we had a big donnybrook over that, and finally
I got back the Apollo budget.
And so, we did that, you know. But it was unfortunate that we had
to go through all this other really deception. You know, when the
guy I think that probably is most responsible for the whole space
program is a guy named Jim [James E.] Webb, who was totally disliked
by almost all the astronauts because he asked them to do politically
correct things, like going to the Raspberry Festival and talking to
Senator So-and-so. But if it hadn’t been for Jim Webb and his
approach to spaceflight, there would’ve never been a space program.
Because when Congress asked Webb how much it was going to cost to
do the Apollo Program, the numbers I’m not sure about but I
think the engineering estimate was $20 billion. Now NASA management
might have today come in with $10 billion. What Webb did was he went
in with $40 billion. He doubled it instead of cutting it in half.
He went there, he told them it was going to be $40 billion, they approved
it, and the entire time I ran the Apollo Spacecraft Program I never
had a problem with money. We were always on time. We were always willing
to run things. And we were able to run the program in a way that got
Ward: And in reality, that’s probably a cheaper way to run a
McDivitt: Oh, much cheaper! Much cheaper. I think it cost $23 billion
to do the program that he said would cost $40 billion. And when we
needed money, we had it. I remember one day Rocco called me up. Rocco
Petrone was the [NASA Headquarters Apollo] Program Director. And this
sort of has to do with the whole management concept and the flexibility
we had in those days versus what it is today.
Rocco called me up one day and said, “Jim, have you got any
extra money?” I said, “Well, yeah, probably I do. What
do you need?” He said, “Well, Dick Smith’s having
a problem with the Saturn. He’s got an engine problem and he
needs some money.” I said, “Well, how much do you need?”
He said, “Well, what have you got?” So, I said—I
put him on hold. I didn’t even hang up!
I put him on hold, and I called my Program Control guy, and I said,
“Do we have any extra money?” He said, “Well, you
know, I know we have $50 million, but I don’t—”
You know, we might’ve had—remember, these are ’69,
’70 dollars. He said, “I know we’ve got $50 million.”
I said, “Well, hang on a minute.” So, I put him on hold.
And I got Rocco, and I said, “Rocco, I know we got $50 million.”
He says, “I think that’ll do it.” I said, “Okay,
we’ll transfer it over to you this afternoon.” We hung
up. I called the other guy and I said, “Transfer it to Marshall
[Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama] this afternoon.”
We did. And we got things done.
Now, you know, if you tried to do that today, Rocco would’ve
been in jail. I would’ve been in jail. Our—my Controller
would’ve been in jail. Dick Smith would’ve been in jail.
And their—his Program Control guy would’ve been in jail,
too, because we were moving money around. It wasn’t authorized
exactly in the right way.
Ward: But by doing that, you kept 300,000 people productively employed
and moving on schedule.
McDivitt: Oh yeah. And I think that we saved $500 million. I mean—but,
see, this—they don’t do it like that today. And the relationship
between the contractors and NASA was really quite good. I remember
after the fire, people were really down in the mouth out at North
American. I mean, they were really, really—they really took
that to heart. I don’t think the people at NASA felt that way.
I mean, thought that North American was going to have—but those
people were really, really upset. So, we got involved in a baseball
Dick [Richard F.] Gordon [Jr.], who was on my backup crew, got that
damn thing started. But anyway, the Vice President of Manufacturing
for Rockwell—for North American in those days and Dick were
always challenging each other to sports. So, finally we decided we
were going to have a baseball game. Well, we had nine guys. We had
the prime crew, backup crew, and the support crew. I mean, that’s
a baseball team. And then they had—I thought they could gen
up a few guys. And I’d never played baseball in my life! I’d
played softball. And we had a couple of guys who’d played baseball.
Well, anyway, Al [Alan L.] Bean then had a operation on his gall bladder
or something. So, we only had eight guys. And so, we got one of the
support engineers to fill in for us; and we went out and practiced
once, I think at the Harris County Boys Home. I don’t know if
you know where that is. They had a baseball field out there that looked
like a pasture. It had rocks all over it. And so, we went out there
and practiced one day; and Al [Alfred M.] Worden was going for a grounder
and he bumps off a clump of dirt, hit him in the chin, and it knocked
him out! That’s how—you know, to get knocked out as a
pilot, it’s really bad news. Al’s not going to fly anymore,
so I can tell the story. So, Al got knocked out. “Holy hell!
You know, we’ve got to be careful about this. We’d better
not practice much.” So, we threw the ball around a little bit;
and we didn’t have anybody to pitch to us to hit or anything.
So, that was our baseball team.
And I went over to see the Vice President of Manufacturing one day
at lunchtime, and his secretary says, “Oh, he’s out practicing
with the team.” “Oh, really?” She said, “Yeah,
they practice every day from twelve to one.” I said, “When
do they eat?” “Well, they eat around it.” You know,
so I said, “Where are they?” “Well, they’re
out at the Rockwell—at the North American sports field.”
They had a field. So, I go over there. He’s got about 200 guys
out there running around! He’s got all these ex-Major League
pitchers and stuff like that! And so, I said, “Man, this isn’t
fair!” “Why, yeah, it is fair.”
So, anyway, we had this baseball game scheduled at one of the junior
colleges. We got a big stadium, had a couple of umpires in black suits
and the inflated things. And North American gave us all sweatshirts.
Now today we’d go to jail if we took a sweatshirt. But we had
a sweatshirt that said, “Spacecraft-103 Flight Crew” or
whatever it was. And then they had sweatshirts a little different
color. And we went out there and we played a—I think we ended
up playing 7 innings.
They didn’t have any lights at the field. But Dick Gordon was
our pitcher. He’d pitched for the University of Washington.
He pitched the whole game. [Charles “Pete”] Conrad [Jr.]
was the catcher. Conrad’s arm got so sore after a couple of
innings, he was rolling the ball out! They went through—the
North American guys went through a couple of Major League—ex-Major
League pitchers. Anyway, at the end of 6 innings I think it was, they
were only ahead by one run and it was getting dark. I figured we had
a better chance in the dark than they did! So, the Vice President
of Manufacturing wanted to stop the game. I said, “No, let’s
play one more inning.” And we scored one run. We lost by a run.
But the stands were, like, 5,000 or 6,000 or 7,000 people, who all
came out to see us play this baseball game. And they were all North
American employees. And they were—and you know, we were all
out there as a team of people, working together to do what was the
right thing. And you couldn’t do that today. I mean, you know,
there are too damn many rules. You can’t have a cup of coffee,
and, you know—so, you know, you guys work for NASA. I don’t.
But I guess you don’t anymore either. But those are the rules.
I think it was a terrible, terrible setback. Terrible setback. I got
more done over a cup of coffee or a hamburger, talking to the engineers
and stuff, than you could possibly get done in a meeting. I mean,
we just—too bad we don’t do it like that anymore. I bet
you that got you off the page.
Ward: Yeah, it did. It really did! One thing I did want to ask you,
it takes you back a ways, but you mentioned that we were going to
have the hardware to do 20, 25 Apollo missions as opposed to the 17
we actually flew. Do you think that we could’ve maintained public
and Congressional support for that many flights if we’d kept
going with them?
McDivitt: I think the news media interest was waning as we got deeper
into the program. And could we have done 25 lunar-landing flights?
I think we could have. We’re doing shuttle flights today, which
are a hell of a lot less exciting than landing on the Moon. But still,
you know, the enthusiasm for spaceflight in the United States today
has waned a lot. And a lot of people don’t even know when there’s
a flight up there, including me sometimes. So, it’s—you
don’t have this “wow!” enthusiasm that we had early
I remember on Apollo 14 I think it was, after the fire, Apollo 14’s
on its way to the Moon; and they’re having trouble docking the
command module back on the lunar module when the lunar module’s
still in the S-IVB. They’re on translunar flight. And we had
live TV of this stuff, and you could see the—I’m sitting
down at the Launch Control Center, and you can see the probe come
in and bounce around the drogue. And it’s coming down a live
feed. And I’m looking at the three big channels. There’s
a golf match on one, there was a baseball game on the other, and there
was a soap opera on the other one. And nobody was getting this live
feed of us possibly losing an Apollo mission. And when I saw that,
I— “Um-hmm, I think the bloom’s off the rose!”
But we went ahead and flew—I’m quite sure that was 14.
Because 15, 16, 17, you know, we were still doing it. And I think
that we could’ve done it.
Ward: Maybe it’s a mistake to equate public interest with public
McDivitt: Yeah. I think—well, no. I think it’s a mistake
to equate press interest with public support. You know, public interest
can be significantly different than press interest. You know, it—the
press wants sensationalism. If it’s not blowing up or dying
or something else like that, it’s—sometimes they lose
Ward: While we’re on the subject of the press, during your tenure
as Program Manager NASA made a couple of very significant decisions
with regard to media relations. One of which was to allow the reporters
in Mission Control with access to the flight director’s loop.
That went into effect on Apollo 13. And another management decision,
and both of these, I think, went all the way to [NASA] Headquarters,
was to permit the press to hold in-flight press conferences with crews.
What was your reaction to both of those decisions at the time they
McDivitt: Well, I supported them. I thought that we should never interfere
in any way with the flight crews on a lunar-landing mission until
they were in the command module transearth flight. And, you know,
we didn’t do anything up until that time to distract them one
iota from it. I even had them, you know, they were a lot of really
good scientific ideas going around at NASA.
And I put out a letter to all of NASA Centers, “If you guys
can come up with an experiment that has no interface with the spacecraft
other than the 28 bolts and you can write the directions on how to
use this thing on a simple sheet of paper, we’ll carry them,
because we have enough extra weight capacity,”—in those
days— “we will carry it in a thing. And if the crew gets
around to it, they can do the experiment on the way home. But no training
involved. None!” Unfortunately, the crews would cheat on me
and go train a little bit.
And the same thing applied to the public relations aspect of it. Until
they had landed on the Moon and come back off and their mind was clear
of all that stuff, and then on the way home, I didn’t have any
problem with it. And I didn’t have any problem with guys listening
to the flight controller’s loop. I mean, they got it delayed
anyway sometimes, and there’s no—
I must say, though, that probably the toughest press conference I
ever did in my life was when we did the Apollo 13 press conference
right after the explosion. And we had made a decision to—you
know, they were on a non-free return trajectory. To put them back
on a free return trajectory by doing a lunar module burn. I don’t
think we’d done that yet. But we’d made the decision,
so Chris and Sig [Sigurd A.] Sjoberg and I went out and did this press
conference. It was right at that time I thought the probability of
getting them back was pretty slim. I knew their wives and—I
knew their wives and all their kids. And I knew they were watching.
And I knew most of their parents. I knew they were watching.
And I thought, “What am I going to say here? I’m not going
to say anything that’s not the truth, but how do I say this?”
I don’t know what I said, but apparently it was all right. I
didn’t get into trouble. But anyway, that was a tough press
Ward: Brian Duff, whom I think you remember at the time—
McDivitt: Oh yeah, I remember Brian well.
Ward: —he passed away a few years ago—
McDivitt: Did he?
Ward: Yes. Yeah.
McDivitt: Oh my God, I didn’t know that! Yeah. I used to run
into Brian in Washington a lot.
Ward: Yeah. Yeah, Brian died of cancer a year or so ago.
McDivitt: Oh my God! That’s terrible. You know, he wrote a really
great article about mothering the astronauts after their flights.
I’ve got it around here someplace. I don’t even know what
magazine it was in. But a great, great article. A good guy. I’m
sorry. Well, go ahead.
Ward: Well, Brian recalled going to a press conference, and it may’ve
been the one that you were reflecting on, and he said that it was
so beneficial in his view that the press had been in the Control Center
when this happened, had been listening to the flight director’s
loop, because he said it allowed one of the participants, and he couldn’t
remember which one to begin his remarks by saying, “Ladies and
gentlemen, you know everything we know. The only thing you don’t
know is what we’re going to do about it. And that’s what
we’re here to tell you.” And it, in his view, had a tremendous
amount to do with garnering public support at the time.
McDivitt: Yeah, yeah. Well, it was an open program. And you know,
sometimes the—you didn’t want to get the press involved
in the decision-making process. You wanted them to know the decision
but not the decision-making process, because everybody wasn’t
always in agreement to start with on what should we do about what
you should do. And so, you know, we had to coalesce this thing and
then either—one of the flight directors had to make the decision
or I had to make the decision, depending on whose bailiwick it fell
into. But we had to do that.
I remember one time I had made a decision. It had to do with a hatch.
I don’t remember what it was. And Rocco [Petrone] said, “I
just got a phone call from the White House; and the President wants
a memo or something on that.” “Oh my God!” You know,
it was like two or three in the morning. So, I called my secretary
up and said, “Suzie, you’ve got to come over here. We’ve
got to put something together for the President, and I don’t
have the time to do all of this stuff.” So, she grumbled and
moaned and quit complaining and came over. And I told her generally
what the outline was. And she put together a letter, and then I went
ahead and corrected it. And in between other things we were doing,
we got this letter out to the President. And I don’t know what
the President was going to do with it, because he sure wasn’t
going to second-guess me!
You know, speaking of this second-guessing. I don’t know if
you’ve talked to Rocco Petrone yet or not, or whether you will.
But, you know, Rocco was the toughest—he was the toughest gorilla
in the valley! And he just scared the living daylights out of everybody
in NASA. And I think that we would’ve never had an Apollo Program
if Rocco hadn’t been down at the Cape, got that thing built
the way he did, and then—and he had this reputation as being
And then he became the Program Director when I became the Apollo Spacecraft
Program Manager. And in the three or four years we worked together,
he never raised his voice to me one single time. We got along just
like this. He used to still terrorize the guys down at the Cape and
the guys at Marshall. But he and I got along so wonderfully. And I
had so many tough decisions to make, and Rocco never second-guessed
me. You know, “What’s your decision in this, Jim?”
And, “Should we go or should we not go?” And if we were
going to go, he endorsed it. And, well, it was a real pleasure working
with him. He was a topnotch guy. He was a real bulldog.
When we had an engineering problem, he’d get on the teleconference
sometimes, we didn’t have videoconferences in those days, and
we’d discuss a scratch in the tank for maybe eight hours. And
we would go over every aspect that any human being could think of,
and then we would do it ten more times. Because he was a great guy
to work for. I just wanted to mention that as we go.
Ward: Yeah. Yeah. When you look back at your own career, what other
things that really stand out that you remember most fondly, or that
you got the greatest sense of accomplishment from?
McDivitt: Well, let me do the military career, because that was—we
touched on that a little bit earlier. When I—when the Air Force—when
Colonel Peterson I think his name was, threw me off the X-15 Program
and then we got on with it anyway. Well, when I went to Washington
for the Air Force screening of astronauts, there were, I don’t
know 100-some guys there probably. And they screened it down to nine
people that they submitted to NASA. And out of that nine, they selected
four—Borman and White and [Thomas P.] Stafford and myself.
Then when they selected us, they brought us back to Washington and
we got a Charm School course. You know, keep your socks pulled up.
Be nice to the secretaries. Don’t cough in somebody’s
face. How to use the knives and the spoons are over here. The forks
are over here. But anyway, they looked after us, were extremely supportive
of us—at the General level. General being, that’s a capital
G, you know; one star, two star. Very, very supportive of us at that
level. And so, we—and they said, “You know, you guys are
always part of the Air Force and don’t ever forget it. And we’re
here. And if you need any help, call us,” and all that kind
of stuff. And so, then we went off to NASA; and I felt that when I
went there, that I had 100% support from the Air Force, other than
When I was in Korea, I got promoted quickly from Second Lieutenant
to First Lieutenant. And then when I came back, I got promoted very
quickly to Captain. So, I was a Captain two or three years before
my contemporaries were. And in those days, you were promoted based
upon your time and grade. And so, as I was coming up on my time and
grade as a Captain to be eligible for promotion to Major, they changed
the rules so that I was—the next promotion I would have been
eligible for promotion to Major. And they changed the rules where
now it was length of time as a commissioned officer. So, instead of
becoming eligible here, based upon when I became a Captain, it had
to go back to when I became an officer. And that length of time moved
it way out to here [gestures].
So, I was a Captain for a long time. It went—and just as I was
leaving Edwards Air Force Base and becoming a NASA astronaut, I would’ve
been—well, a little bit after that, I came up for consideration
for a promotion to Major, below the zone. And I’d made all these
other things below the zone. And I didn’t make it. I thought,
“Hmm, that’s really odd,” because I knew what my
officer efficiency reporting for ratings were. They were all as good
as you can get. And so, then the next year came up and I didn’t
get promoted again.
Now Ed White was in the—he went and graduated from West Point
when I was commissioned, within a month or two. So, we were in the
same group. So, I went up to the Pentagon one time to look at my efficiency
ratings to make sure that they were what I thought they were. And
I was looking at them, and they were as good as you could get. They
couldn’t be any better. And so, there was a guy standing there,
an officer, and I said, “Could you tell me, do you have any
clue as to why I didn’t get promoted this last time?”
I’d been—I’d probably been a Captain longer than
anybody in the below zone thing. And he said, “Well,”
he looked at it, “wow,” you know, “I don’t
know. But,” he says, “why don’t you talk to that
guy over there? That Colonel right there is the Colonel who was in
charge of the Selection Board.” I was in civilian clothes, because—being
in NASA, I couldn’t wear my uniform.
So, I walk over there and I say to him, “You know, Colonel,
I was just going through my records here. And I’ve been a Captain
for quite a long time and I didn’t get promoted in the first
time below the zone nor the second time below the zone.” And
then you come up for promotion in the regular zone. And he looks at,
“Wow!” you know, “Wow! wow! wow! wow! wow!”
He finally gets to the last page, and he looks up and he says—he
sees my assignment: Manned Spacecraft Center.
His face clouds over and he said, “What are you?” I said,
“I’m a Captain.” He says, “Captain, I don’t
think you have any career in the Air Force. You ought to get out.”
I said, “What?” He says, “You’re undereducated.
You don’t have any flying experience.” He says, “You’re
not the kind of officer we want.” I said, “Thank you,
sir,” and turned my back and came back.
At the same time, Ed White’s father was a retired Major General,
and he knew—he just happened to be a friend of the Secretary
of the Air Force at the time, whose name I forget. And so, he called
on behalf of Ed and said, “You know, what’s going on?”
And the Secretary said, “Well, you know I can’t interfere.”
He said, “Yeah,” he said, “yeah, I know that. But
can’t you find out what’s going on?” So, he called
Ed’s dad back and said, “You know, there’s a whole
mass of Air Force officers who are out to drive all these guys out
of the Air Force because they think they’re traitors.”
We were right at the height of the rules and mission. Who was become
the dominant player in space, in manned space? And so much so that
there was even a time when they were thinking about having Air Force
officers fly in Gemini and they were going to fly as copilots and
I, as a NASA guy, not as an Air Force, as a NASA guy, would be the
commander of this other Air Force guy, who was no different than me
but in reality—but was perceived to be different would have
to be my subordinate no matter who he was.
So anyway, the—General White called in and said, “You
know, the Air Force is out to get you guys. You, you know, you’ve
pretty much had it.” So, I submitted my resignation from the
Air Force and into NASA. I had to send it to Deke, and then Deke had
to send it to Dr. Gilruth, I guess. And anyway, by the time we got
through with all that kind of stuff, it took a while and I was getting
close to flying on Gemini IV, and I thought, “Well, you know,
this is getting too close. It’s going to look like sour grapes
if I let this thing go forward.” Because by the time it went
through the Air Force, it would be like I was resigning two days before
I was going to fly on Gemini IV. So, I thought, “Ah, I’ll
pull the resignation out and I’ll submit it after the flight!”
So, I pulled the resignation, and then we go fly our flight. And after
the flight President [Lyndon B.] Johnson called us out on the aircraft
carrier. And so, we chatted with him. And then when we got back to
Houston, we had just landed at Ellington and we’d only been
there on the ground for 15 or 20 minutes, when somebody runs out from
the operations shack and says, “Hey, the President’s on
the phone and wants to talk to you two guys.” So, we go in there
and get on the phone. And he says, “Boys, I would like to have
you all come down to the ranch and spend the weekend here.”
So, we chatted. And he said, “I got to give you a medal, you
know. Come on down here. We’ll have a good time.”
And so, Ed and I looked at each other; and we—by that time,
we’d been together so long we could read each other’s
mind. And I’m thinking, “I think Ed wants to go to the
White House. I know I don’t.” He said, “Well, Mr.
President, you know, we’d really like to go to the White House.”
He said, “Oh, hell man! If you want to go to the White House,
yeah, that’d be great. We’ll go to the White House! I
just thought we’d have a hell of a good time down here.”
I said, “Well, I got another idea. Why don’t you come
here and visit us?” I said, “We’ll go to the White
House if you’ll invite us, and you can come here to the Manned
Spacecraft Center.” I said, “You know, it wasn’t
just Ed and me that did all this. It was all of us did it. Come on
down here and see all of us.” He said, “Goddamn, Jim,
that’s a great idea! I’m going to do that!”
So, I went out and talked to—I said, “Dr. Gilruth, I just
invited the President to come visit us here, and he’s going
to come.” Gilruth almost died on the spot! So, anyway, pretty
soon the President comes, you know, a month later, three weeks later,
whatever it was—comes down to the Manned Spacecraft Center.
And we went and had a little welcoming ceremony. And so, we’re
all standing around there and he’s at this podium. My mom and
dad are there. Ed’s mom and dad are there. And all the dignitaries.
And he gets all through with the formal stuff, and finally he says,
“Jim, come up here.” So, I walk—oh, by then I’d
made Major. I’d made Major, like, a couple of weeks before the
flight. So, I walk up there and he says, “Jim, I’ve got
a surprise for you.” He says, “You know, I think you boys
are doing a hell of a good job here. And I’m the Commander-in-Chief
of this outfit. And,” he says, “I decided that I’m
going to promote you all. And you’re now a Lieutenant Colonel!”
He gave me my silver oak leaves, and I was only a Major for a couple
of months. I never did get my Major’s on my shoulders. He called
Ed up, promoted Ed right there. And then he says—I don’t
remember whether Gus was there or not. He says, “I got one for
Gus.” Those were the first Presidential promotions.
Well, when that happened, I think the attitude in the Air Force changed.
And what it—what really was happening was that the Second Lieutenants,
First Lieutenants, and Captains were—they usually thought being
an astronaut would be great. I think the Generals did, too. But these
middle guys—the Majors, Lieutenant Colonels, and the Colonels—were
doing the day-to-day battling over rules and missions. They hated
our guts! But I think the President turned that around. And so, ultimately,
I ended up becoming a General. So—
Ward: I think all your best answers have come to questions I didn’t
ask. I’ll ask you if you have any more good answers then.
McDivitt: Well, let’s see. There was one other thing I wanted
to talk to you a little bit about. What the heck was it now? Well,
let’s see. Anyway, I’ll tell you what I thought was the
best thing and the most fun thing and probably the best decisions
that we made—
McDivitt: —when I worked for NASA, that were NASA-related decisions.
Probably opening up the hatch on Gemini IV was a damn good decision.
Because if we hadn’t done that, we would have delayed all the
EVA stuff and we might not have found out what we needed to find out
early enough to affect us on the later missions. When we were flying
Apollo 9 and Rusty got sick, he was supposed to do the EVA. And it
was obvious that he couldn’t even lie still, let alone do an
EVA in the first early days. And so, I had called down and told them
that we were going to scrub the EVA, with Rusty at least. And that
I—if I thought he was well enough to get in a pressure suit
and just stay stationary, that I’d do the EVA. An abbreviated
part of it.
And so, we just sort of decided that’s what we’d do. And
then the next day, when we got around to doing it and I was watching
him getting dressed and getting ready, he looked better. And I kept
watching him. He looked like he was getting a little bit better. And
so, finally I asked him how he felt. He said, “I—”he
didn’t feel perfect, but he felt a lot better than he had been
feeling. And so, I watched him for another while and finally said,
“You think you can do that EVA?” And he said, “Yeah,
I think I can.” I said, “Okay. It’s back on. We’ll
do it.” So, I called down and said, “We’re going
to do the EVA with Rusty.” And I think that was a good decision.
Then every one of the big flights we had, we had a major problem,
you know. My first effort as a Program Manager was Apollo 12, when
we launched it and then it got struck by lightning twice. Then I had
to decide whether it was okay to send it to the Moon or not. And I
did. Then 13 was—it was probably the greatest spaceflight anybody
has ever flown. And that worked out fine. Then—I think it was
14, we had solder balls flying around and sending “I’m
going to shut off”—engine shut off signals to the engine.
And in 15 we had a major problem. I don’t remember what they
were. 16 we had the gimbal thing. And we were able to go forward with
all of those except 13.
And the philosophy that I used I think is important. Because I always
thought when the guys are on the ground and we hadn’t launched
anything, we had no investment of risk. So that it would be easy to
stop. A little thing could go wrong, we could stop it. The only risk
that we would have, we’d have another month on the pad if it
was going to take another month, which did increase the risk. So,
I was always weighing the risk that we had invested or the risks that
we were going to get into, against the gain that we were going to
Now if we’d launch and something happened, then I’d have
to—if something went wrong, you already had the risk of the
launch. So, I would be more aggressive on a individual problem. It’d
be the same problem if we were airborne or on the ground. If we were
airborne, I would go forward a lot more than I would have on the ground.
And if we were at the Moon, where we’d made the risk of getting—taken
the risk of getting there, I would be more aggressive in the decisions
I made at the Moon than I would be back at the Earth. And if we were
separated and were about to do the lunar landing or something like
that, I would be more aggressive in the decisions I made there than
if we were anyplace on the way.
So, I always based my decisions on how much risk that we had already
invested in the mission up to that point. So that, towards the end,
I got pretty aggressive in going forward. And it turned out, fortunately,
I was right. I remember after Apollo 16, when I decided that we should
go on and land on the Moon, I came home. I had already announced that
I wasn’t going to be the Program Manager anymore. I came home
and my wife said, “Why did you ever do that?” She said,
“You could’ve brought them home and had a successful career.
Now you’ve got your neck stuck out as far as it goes.”
But we’d already made that risk, and it turned out it was a
good decision. [Recorder turned off.]
Ward: Jim, a lot of credit has been given to the technical success
of Apollo. But the management of Apollo may have been an even greater
success story. Let’s talk a little bit about how you managed
that program during your stint as Program Manager. And in particular,
how did you make the transition from becoming an astronaut to becoming
a Program Manager?
McDivitt: Yeah. Let’s talk about the management structure first.
The Mercury Program was done as a Project. There was a Project Office
and everybody who worked on Mercury was in that Office. It was just
a—it was a small program really by today’s standards.
And so, they all worked together.
Gemini, we had exactly the same thing. We had the Gemini Project Office,
I think it was called, and all the people who worked on Gemini were
there. It wasn’t a very complex thing, but they were all there.
We had a rocket guy. Of course that was different. We sort of got
that thing from the Air Force by way of Martin. But all these people
had a boss that was in the program. So if you were down here in the
program, you worked for a guy who was in the Program Office, and he
worked for a guy in the Program Office, he worked for a guy in the
Program Office, and finally got to the Program Manager. So, everybody
was sort of a self-contained thing.
When we got into Apollo, it was so gigantic that we would have had
half the world in the Program Office, and there was really no way
to manage anything like that. And a guy named Jim Elks, I believe,
came into NASA from someplace, I have no idea where, and he put in
the matrix management system and really a different concept on how
to manage things. And so, we had an Apollo Program Office that wasn’t
really any different in size than the Gemini Program Office; but we
“matrixed” with all the people.
And so that, almost the entire Engineering and Development Directorate
at the Manned Spacecraft Center worked on Apollo. But they reported—they
were broken down into small groups; like maybe the reaction, the attitude
control rockets. The guys who did that, who looked after that little
rocket, were in Engineering and Development. And when that sort of
came together at a little higher level, we had a guy in the Program
Office who sort of supervised that group of people in Engineering
and Development. The people in there reported or worked for Max Faget.
But their product was my product. And it came to me through a group
of Subsystem Managers, then it went to a System Manager, who then
went to the Program Manager. And so, at one time I think we had 600,000
people working on the program, counting all the contractors and things
like that. To make that manageable, of course, we had to have a number
of layers of management.
And so, within NASA we had this matrix management system. And for
me, from the top, I had a Deputy Program Manager for Experiments,
I did that job myself quite a lot, I had a Deputy Program Manager
for the Lunar Module, a Deputy Program Manager for the Command Module,
and then I had a Systems Engineering Office. And in the Systems Engineering
Office people provided technical assistant across these Program Offices.
But in each Program Office—the Command Module Program Office
under its Deputy Program Manager—we had Systems Managers. And
they dealt then with contractors, under a loose system, or the people
in NASA who looked after it. Some of them weren’t even at the
Manned Spacecraft Center.
And so, we had this very complicated management system. But I had
only a few direct reports that I had to worry about. I had Aaron Cohen
as the Command Module Program, Deputy Program Manager; Owen Morris
as the Lunar Module; and anything that needed to be done within those
programs, they were responsible for. And so, I had complete faith
in what they did. Then I had this technical assistance over here,
and I had some administrative assistance over here. A very simple
thing for me to manage.
Now there was a limited authority that they had, where they could
do things by themselves. They could make recommendations; but the
limited authority was such that they couldn’t authorize anything
over $10,000. They couldn’t authorize anything which changed
the weight of the vehicles. And they couldn’t authorize anything
that changed the schedule.
We took those kinds of things to an organization we called the Configuration
Change Board or Configuration Control Board, which met every Friday
afternoon at 1:00. Sometimes it went to Saturday morning at 1:00.
Sometimes it went to 8:00 in the morning, and sometimes it was through
in just a few hours. But every change that changed the schedule, changed
the weight, or changed anything over $10,000 came through the Change
Board. And at that Change Board we had a representative from North
American; we had a representative from Grumman; and we had a representative
from every major organization at the Manned Spacecraft Center.
Safety, Engineering and Development, Flight Crew Operations, Flight
Operations, Safety, all those people. And they sat on the Board. And
we’d bring up an issue and we’d discuss it, and everybody
would get their chance to say what they thought, and usually it was
a divided opinion. And then I had the opportunity to make the decision,
“Yes, we would do it,” or “We wouldn’t,”
“Yes, we would,” or “No, we wouldn’t.”
And one of the innovations that I finally had to put in was that we
had a long table with all the members of the Board there, and we had
a—sort of a gallery in the back. A lot of people in the gallery
were very emotionally involved in these decisions, and they would
get involved in the discussion. And finally I had them paint a white
line across the room. And if you were on that side of the line, you
couldn’t talk. If you were on this side of the line, you could
talk. And the other innovative thing that I finally had to do was
that whenever these Changes came up, we always said who was recommending
it but they never said who was opposed to it. So, we had them add
that to it; and then we just argued through these things until we
And when we got to a conclusion, we got the support that we always
needed. Just an aside: I think a fellow whose name was Wes Hjornevik
went to HUD [Housing and Urban Development] when the President decided
he ought to have some of our great NASA managers there. He went there
and he found that he had something similar to that. When they’d
make the decision, he couldn’t find anybody to implement it.
Even the guy who wanted to make the change wouldn’t do it! And
the next day, everybody was arguing about what the decision was! I
think Wes had a heart attack and left the HUD very quickly. But that
was the key to the thing.
We had—everybody got the chance to speak their piece. And when
the decision was made, everybody got behind it. And I think that’s
what separated NASA, at least the Apollo Program, from all the other
stuff. That it was unique in that everybody supported it. And we had
some tough, knockdown, drag-out fights in there.
Ward: Would it be correct to say that the Change Board was a mechanism
that allowed the Program Manager to assure that important details
didn’t slip by unnoticed, but that the Program at the same time
didn’t get bogged down by things that were less important?
McDivitt: Absolutely. The Deputy Program Managers took care of every
detail. They were very—Owen Morris and Aaron Cohen are detail
nuts. And they took care of all that little stuff. I had total confidence
in them that nothing would slip by. But at the same token, I just
couldn’t release the program to everybody making changes that
weren’t coordinated. So, we had this other super board that
took care of the meatier things. And I always had confidence that
everything was there.
Now you asked another question about, how did I get to be—how
did I make that transition from astronaut to Program Manager.
McDivitt: Well, I’ve always been interested in business; and
when I first got assigned to NASA I was busy just learning what space
was. But then when I got assigned to the Gemini flight crew, I used
to go up to all the program reviews at McDonnell. This wasn’t
an astronaut job. I’d go up there and sit in on the discussions,
review the contracts, see what the schedules were, how they were changing.
Sit in on a lot of the manufacturing scheduling stuff. And even worked
with them when they did the first incentive contract. We had a great,
big three-dimensional model of performance versus dollars versus schedule.
And so, I spent a lot of time doing that.
Then when I took over my—the astronaut job of looking after
Apollo, I spent a tremendous amount of time working with the contractors
and working with the Program Office, trying to make schedules and
do a lot of this other stuff. So, I was spending all my spare time—all
my spare working time—working sort of in the Program Office.
I even got to the point where we were having difficulty one time getting
a clock, a digital clock, that would do what I thought the astronauts
needed; and so, I talked to Joe Shea about, “Why don’t
I go design the clock and get the thing all approved and everything?”
And “Be my guest.” So, I went up to someplace in Boston
[Massachusetts] with the guys where there were clockmakers and figured
out, you know, how we could get two or three more digits on this rotating
clock, and came back and negotiated price with them. Came back and
told the program control guys what the price was and what we wanted—needed
to do, and told them what the specs were. And we got it done.
So, I spent a lot of time doing program control, program management,
the financial aspects of it, the scheduling part, and even some of
the manufacturing parts.
Ward: So, if I understand you correctly, what you’re really
saying is that being an astronaut doesn’t automatically qualify
you to be a manager.
Ward: You have to—you’ve got to train yourself and have
the instincts that would lead you in that direction.
McDivitt: Yeah. A lot of my astronaut buddies were—have been
criticized for not doing well in business. And you’ve got to
remember that we were picked as pilots, not as businessmen. And sometimes
you can be good at one and not at the other. And the same thing goes
along with program management. You know, you can be a good pilot and
not necessarily be a good Program Manager.
Ward: …Jim, one of the things that managers face is that you
have to make a lot of decisions. And you have to have a lot of confidence
in your decision-making ability. How did you handle that? And how
did you keep from having your—the decisions you made second-guessed
and turned around?
McDivitt: Well, I think one of the things that made NASA so successful
back in the ’60s, early ’70s was the fact that I think
we all knew where the buck stopped and which part of the buck that
you owned. And I think that there’s a lot to be learned from
those old days.
Because when I made a decision that had to do with a spacecraft and
its hardware, I had a boss. The Program Director. He never second-guessed
me. He had a boss. The Associate Administrator for Manned Spaceflight
and the NASA Administrator. They never second-guessed him. And I think
that there was no way that we could have ever done the things that
we did, in real time, with somebody making a decision and then as
it came—as you made the decision, somebody getting you to justify
it and review it. And then somebody above them asking to do the same
thing. It just wouldn’t work.
One of the things that I learned when we were flying was that there’s
this thing called real-time engineering. And when you’re on
to launch, it’s ten minutes and then you’re there. And
then you do the translunar, and it’s three days until we get
there. Or if you’re in lunar orbit, it’s an hour in the
front and an hour in back. And you’ve got to make those decisions
within those timeframes.
In fact, I remember a lot of times we had 2 hours and 31 minutes to
make this decision, you know. And at that time, you’ve got to
make the decision. And you need as much data as you can. So, when
you got to 2 hours and 20 minutes, somebody had to make the decision.
And if it was my decision to make, I made it. And fortunately, my
bosses were such that they never second-guessed what I did. They just
said, “Okay. That’s the decision. That’s what we’re
going to do.” And I think you have to be very, very careful
that you don’t get yourself into things like the Challenger
accident, where everybody’s second-guessing every damn decision
that anybody made along the line.
It’s easy to go back and say, “Oh yeah,” you know,
“If I’d have done that, I’d have done it this way.”
There are going to be losses in this business, and you’ve got
to give the guys who are making the decision the support they need.
Ward: Yeah. Of course, you also have to have a pretty good batting
average on those decisions to keep having people trust you. So—
McDivitt: Oh yeah. And having even batted once. But things go wrong
in space that you don’t know anything about.
Ward: Yeah. Do you think there’s an intuitive aspect to decision-making?
That good decision-makers are the ones who trust their intuition,
but who have pretty good—
McDivitt: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think this is
an intuition thing. I think we did all of our decision-making on the
best engineering facts we could get. So, sometimes we couldn’t
get as good as you wanted. And then maybe you had to apply a little
intuition there. But you had to get as much as you could.
For instance, when we had the oscillating actuator. The only thing
we could do was pick up quickly two or three tests that we could ask
the guy in the spacecraft to do, and then he was back behind the Moon
again. Then we had to do something on the ground to see if we could
replicate that. And then if we could, take a quick look; and when
he came around the lunar edge again, then we’d look for five
minutes. Then we had 30 minutes or so to think about it. And then
once we made that decision, that was it. But we couldn’t keep
doing these tests. Now, if we’d had three days to do the test,
I’m sure we could have figured it out to a higher degree of
confidence than what we had done. But at least we were lucky enough
to figure out the right answer.
[End of Interview]