On this day in 1965, Lt. Col. Ed White becomes the first American to make a walk in space, the principal operation of the Gemini 4 mission, the first multi-day space flight by the United States. The flight was the first American mission to perform many scientific experiments in space, including use of a sextant to investigate celestial navigation for planned lunar flight in the Apollo program.
The mission’s purpose was to demonstrate the possibility for humans to remain in space for extended lengths of time. The four-day, 66-orbit flight, under the command of Brig. Gen. James McDivitt, would approach but not break the five-day record set by the Soviet Vostok 5 in June 1963. Subsequent Gemini flights would be longer, to prove endurance exceeding the time required to fly to the Moon and back.
As for White, he was born on November 14, 1930, in San Antonio, Texas, to parents Edward Higgins White Sr. (1901–1978), who became a major general in the U.S. Air Force, and Mary White. Young White was accepted to West Point, where in 1952 he earned his Bachelor of Science degree and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
After flight school, White was assigned to the 22nd Fighter Day Squadron at Bitburg Air Base, West Germany. He spent three and a half years there flying with F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre squadrons in the defense of NATO.
White received his Master of Science degree from University of Michigan in 1959, earned his credentials as a test pilot the same year, and would log more than 3,000 flight hours with the Air Force, including upwards of 2,200 hours in jets. White was one of nine men chosen as part of the second group of NASA astronauts in 1962 and was soon named Pilot of Gemini 4, with Command Pilot McDivitt, also a U of M grad.
As to the spacewalk, White found the experience so exhilarating that he was reluctant to terminate the EVA at the allotted time, and was ordered back into the spacecraft. While he was outside, a spare thermal glove floated away through the open hatch of the spacecraft, becoming an early piece of space debris in low Earth orbit, until it burned up upon re-entry into the atmosphere.
The urgency to end the EVA was due to imminent loss of the radio signal from the Bermuda tracking station, solar termination (total darkness), and a serious uncertainty that the Gemini hatch would close, making survivable re-entry impossible. White stubbornly remained outside the capsule under the pretense of taking more pictures and McDivitt had to coax him in. He finally came back in after a total of approximately 20 minutes and said, “It’s the saddest moment of my life.” By the time he was re-seated, the spacecraft had entered total darkness.
Ending mortal suspense with the successful closing of the stubborn hatch, White and McDivitt endured one more glitch, when the on-board IBM computer failed on the 48th revolution. This was unfortunate for IBM which had just put an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal crowing its computers were so reliable that even NASA used them. The computer failure meant that the capsule would not be able to perform a closed-loop lifting reentry maneuver as planned, and instead the men performed a Mercury-style open-loop rolling reentry.
Gemini splashed down without incident in the North Atlantic, was recovered by the carrier USS Wasp, and the men enjoyed well-deserved hero status nationally and in the space program. Some 18 months later, on January 27, 1967, White died along with astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee during pre-launch testing for the first manned Apollo mission at Cape Canaveral. He had been awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for his flight in Gemini 4, and was then awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor posthumously.
He is still missed.