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.
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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.
The man chosen for the first spacewalk (shown here suiting up, while Alan Shepard looks on) was in great physical condition, even by astronaut standards. White was the kind of guy, according to a profile in LIFE, who “could knock off 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups without a whimper.” After graduating from West Point in 1952, he had narrowly missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team in the 400-meter hurdles.