Born in 1930 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Irwin by an early age knew he wanted to fly. His later graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis led to a commission in the Air Force where Irwin wanted to be a test pilot. But his dream had to wait while he earned a master's degree in aeronautical and instrument engineering.
At Edwards Air Force Base in California, Irwin got his chance and was admitted into test pilot school. He needed this training because he had next set his sights on being an astronaut. After graduation, he continued working as a test pilot. Yet, on a flight with a student pilot, the plane crashed and Irwin suffered serious bodily damage and amnesia.
Again Irwin persevered to overcome a setback. With much therapy he returned to flying and determined to earn a spot in the astronaut corps. Two rejections later and within a month of being too old to qualify, Irwin was accepted into the program and began overseeing the lunar landing module. His one and only completed mission, Apollo 15, took him to the moon in 1971.
Both Irwin and David R. Scott set a record for their time on the moon's surface, made history by using a moon vehicle known as the Lunar Rover or the "moon buggy", and brought back a rock thought to be so old as to be part of the moon's original crust. This trip into space brought a new perspective to Irwin's life, and he began building a relationship with God that had previously been lacking.
Irwin retired from the Air Force and NASA in 1972 after admitting to taking stamps into space for a German stamp dealer to later resell. All three Apollo 15 astronauts were involved and had accepted money in advance. Irwin later apologized for his poor decision and furthered his commitment to God by becoming a minister and an evangelist. He started the High Flight Foundation with the Reverend William H. Rittenhouse and traveled widely giving speeches. Irwin also instigated expeditions in the early 1980s to Mount Ararat in Turkey, searching for Noah's Ark.
Irwin had experienced trouble with his heart during the Apollo 15 mission, and his first heart attack came two years after his return to earth. A second major heart attack came in 1986, and James Irwin died in 1991 after suffering a third attack. He was the first of the moon landing astronauts to pass away.
Irwin wrote an autobiography entitled To Rule the Night. His writings also include More Than Earthlings, More Than an Ark on Ararat, and Destination: Moon.
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