The First U.S. Spacewalk

Ed White’s trip outside, 50 years ago, was exhilarating, improvised, and at times scary.

Ed White, in his element. Back inside the spacecraft, he told McDivitt, “That was the most natural feeling, Jim.” Said his friend, “You looked like you were in your mother’s womb.” (NASA)
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Spacewalking was a late addition to the Gemini 4 mission. Not that NASA hadn’t been thinking about it—a “stand-up EVA” had originally been scheduled, whereby the astronauts would open the overhead hatch of their tiny, two-man capsule so that one could poke his head out into the vacuum. But after Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov ventured outside his Voskhod 2 spacecraft in March 1965, NASA added a full spacewalk to Gemini 4.

Engineers rushed to get all the equipment—including a handheld “zip gun” for maneuvering in orbit—ready in time. (A press kit released two weeks before launch said only that a spacewalk was “possible.”) With just days to go, the plan was approved, and on June 3, 1965, 34-year-old Ed White did what no American had so far done: emerge from his spacecraft to float free. The spacewalk lasted just 20 minutes, long enough to demonstrate the feasibility of working outside, and to check off another major milestone in NASA’s race for the moon.

White and McDivitt

Many of the early astronauts knew each other before joining NASA, having crossed paths as military test pilots in the 1950s. Ed White (left) and Jim McDivitt were especially close. After both serving in the Air Force, they met in 1959 at the University of Michigan, where they lived on the same street. They graduated from Test Pilot School in the same class, and were both picked with the second group of NASA astronauts in 1962. So it was natural that they were assigned together to Gemini 4, the first long-duration flight of the two-man capsule following Gemini 3’s five-hour shakedown flight in March 1965. In a 1999 oral history interview, McDivitt called White “the best friend I ever had.” A year and a half after his spacewalk, White died in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire, along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee. McDivitt flew one more mission after Gemini 4—the Apollo 9 checkout of the lunar module in Earth orbit in 1969.

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