June 3, 1965: Ed White’s Spacewalk

On this day in 1965, 56 years ago, astronaut Ed White, on board Gemini 4, stepped outside his spacecraft to perform the first American EVA. Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov stunned the world the previous March by becoming the first man to walk in space. America had to answer.

An excerpt from Apollo 1: The Tragedy That Put Us On the Moon:

Gemini 4 lifted off Pad 19 on June 3, 1965, at 10:16 a.m. The mission, with its historic firsts of a spacewalk and a four-day duration, was significant in other ways as well. The launch was broadcast live to Europe, as well as to Americans at home, via the Early Bird Satellite, another innovation that the Soviets did not have, showcasing yet again that they were nowhere near America in the overall space race. Because of the mission’s long duration, this was the first use of a three-shift rotation of flight controllers to monitor every aspect of the mission, the brainchild of Chris Kraft, who designed the concept of Mission Control itself. Now that missions would be stretching into days, and even as long as two weeks, there was no way a single team of controllers could handle it alone, as it could during Mercury and for Gemini 3. So each mission control team would each serve an 8-hour shift led by a flight director. 

Within 8 minutes of liftoff, the spacecraft entered an elliptical orbit of 100 miles by 175 miles. McDivitt quickly turned the spacecraft around to find the second stage booster, then several hundred feet away after being jettisoned. Even though this mission was not set to conduct a rendezvous procedure, McDivitt tried to use the spent stage as a target vehicle but it kept moving further away from the spacecraft no matter how much he maneuvered. After four attempts, and the use of a lot of maneuvering fuel, the crew threw in the towel. NASA still had a lot to learn about orbital mechanics at this stage of the program. Things moved and reacted differently in space than they did in the friendly skies on earth. Using the spacecraft’s thrusters to accelerate toward an object increases the velocity, which places the vehicle in a higher orbit, whereby you will actually be “going slower than you were when you fired your thrusters to increase your speed,” Slayton observed. “It’s a hard thing to learn, since it’s kind of backward from anything you know as a pilot.” As Gemini and Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan later wrote, “The laws of orbital mechanics are about as strange as the regulations of the Internal Revenue Service.” But there would be other opportunities to perfect those maneuvers in later missions. Gemini 4 had bigger and more dangerous fish to fry.

The crew – Commander Jim McDivitt and Pilot Ed White – soon began preparations for the spacewalk. Originally planned for the second orbit, McDivitt asked Mission Control that it be delayed until the third go-around in order for the crew to have a little extra time to prepare “because it was our first step in space and we wanted to be sure that the procedures were done thoroughly and correctly.” NASA wanted the EVA to be on the first day early in the flight when Ed was still fresh and before he became fatigued during the four- day mission. This way if anything went wrong, he would have plenty of strength to handle the situation, so the third orbit was readily okayed.

On the third orbit, at 2:34 p.m., about four and a half hours into the mission, both crew members were locked tightly in their spacesuits, breathing 100 percent pure oxygen, when the cabin was depressurized and Ed opened the hatch and stood up. He attached a color movie camera to the outside of the spacecraft so that his historic walk in space could be fully documented. Connected to a tether that supplied the suit with oxygen and provided a communications link, Ed gently floated out of the spacecraft and into the void of space, armed with a hand-held maneuvering unit (HHMU), called a “zip gun” that was fueled with pressurized oxygen to propel him through space. He also had a camera attached to the front of his spacesuit so he could take photographs while on his walk.

Once outside, Ed floated as far away from the spacecraft as the tether would allow, using his gun to move when and where he wanted to. As he tumbled around in space, the camera caught a thermal glove gently floating out of the spacecraft. When the gun ran out of gas, Ed maneuvered under his own power, controlling his own movements, pulling himself around by the tether. With no air in space, there was absolutely no resistance on the spacecraft, and this was fully demonstrated during the spacewalk, so much so that Commander McDivitt said that whenever Ed pulled on the tether, he could feel the spacecraft move. Like those watching the television broadcast, McDivitt marveled at Ed’s spacewalk. “It looks beautiful!” he said. “I feel like a million dollars!” Ed replied. He was having the time of his life, checking out the “spectacular” and “indescribable” views and snapping pictures. The experience made him feel very patriotic. “I felt red, white, and blue all over,” he told Life. “At that moment I was a very lucky American.”

The entire EVA lasted all of twenty minutes, but that was twice as long as Leonov’s excursion. The only problem Gemini 4 encountered was a communications issue during the spacewalk. This was a time before the advent of the worldwide satellite system whereby communications could be relayed around the globe to a central command center, so that if a spacecraft was in orbit on the other side of the planet, Mission Control in Houston could continue to talk to them. In the early days of the manned space program, NASA had to maintain tracking stations at several points around the world. Each had its own Capcom. Gus would be the Mission Control CapCom, the main one for the entire Gemini 4 mission, which relayed information between the crew and Chris Kraft, the flight director. Yet there were gaps in the communications network, short periods of time where there was no direct link to the spacecraft. 

Once Gemini 4 moved out of range of the Hawaii tracking station and moved into the scope of Houston, Gus began calling the spacecraft. But he received no answer. He tried several times. Still no answer. After a few moments, Ed called to Mission Control. “Gus, I don’t know if you can read us but it looks like we are over Houston,” he said. But Gus couldn’t hear anything. Members of the media tried to make an issue of this later on, that Ed had somehow been caught up in the moment and lost track of time, lost track of his mission parameters, lost track of his commander, and, most importantly, lost track of mission control. To this Slayton had only one word: “horseshit.” None of it was true. Ed wasn’t lost in the “euphoria” of his experience. It was simply “a communication problem: Gus could talk to Jim in the Gemini, but not directly to Ed, who was connected through a line in his tether. Ed couldn’t hear Gus, and even Jim wasn’t hearing everything. There was no other problem.” Furthermore, once Ed did hear the message that was finally relayed to him by Chris Kraft himself, “The flight director says get back in,” he immediately complied, although he said later that he felt “a certain sadness” that it was coming to an end. He did have a little difficulty maneuvering back inside to his seat in the spacecraft and a brief moment of trouble getting the hatch closed. But everything eventually came to a very successful conclusion.

“It just felt plain normal,” Ed wrote in an article for Life magazine after the flight, in echoes of his first trip in an airplane with his father years before. “From the moment I propelled myself away from Gemini 4, my strongest feeling was that of doing something that I had been trained for. There was absolutely no sensation of falling. The sensation of speed was the same as it was inside the capsule—and that was similar to the sensation you’d get flying over the earth in an aircraft at about 20,000 feet. There was no feeling at all of being in a hostile environment,” he said.

The mission ended with a successful splashdown four days later, completing NASA’s longest mission to date. Ed White and his amazing feat garnered international attention, making him a star. “Not surprisingly, it was Ed’s spectacular accomplishment that got most of the head- lines,” Gus Grissom later wrote. And it was spectacular indeed. Leonov had “simply tumbled at the end of his tether,” Gus noted, but Ed “actually controlled his own movements and so proved that man could function meaningfully outside of the spacecraft environment.” And Ed was excited about what he had accomplished, so much so that once on board the recovery ship, the USS Wasp, he actually danced “a jig on the flight deck,” wrote his friend and fellow astronaut Frank Borman, to the surprise of many. “The next day, White saw a few Marines and midshipmen having a tug of war and joined them. Quite a guy was Edward Higgins White II.”

Much of the country and the world thought so too. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, now the head of the Space Council, noted that the “public acclaim was impressive,” especially for Ed White and his spacewalk. The more the general public saw of Ed, the more likeable they found him. In the post-flight press conference, Ed opened up about his religious views, revealing that he brought a few spiritual icons on board— a gold cross, a Star of David, and a St. Christopher medal. “I had great faith in myself and especially in Jim and I think I had a great faith in my God,” he said. “So the reason I took these symbols was that I think that this was the most important thing that I had going for me.” A devout Methodist, religion was as important a part of Ed’s life as physical fitness and explains why he was such a kind husband, a loving father, and a loyal friend.

Within days of the mission, President Johnson invited the Gemini 4 crew to the White House to be honored for their historic accomplishment, calling them the “Christopher Columbuses of the Twentieth Century.” The president awarded them NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal and promoted both to Lieutenant Colonel. While in Washington, they addressed a joint session of Congress and attended an event at the State Department where they showed the film of the mission, particularly the spacewalk, while narrating it for the assembled guests in the auditorium. The McDivitts and the Whites stayed the night at the White House, ate dinner with the president and first lady, and all enjoyed a swim in the White House indoor pool.

If that were not enough, for better or worse there was plenty more to come. Vice President Humphrey wanted the Gemini 4 crew for another important endeavor—a public relations mission to counter the Soviet Union in the propaganda war in the Space Race. The Paris Air Show was underway, and the Soviets were putting on quite a display, showcasing their biggest hero, Yuri Gagarin, and also Alexei Leonov, for all the world to see. Yet the exhibition sponsored by the United States was less than impressive. Humphrey got the idea to take America’s newest space heroes, who he said were “special favorites of [his],” to Paris to at least try to even the score. But he ran into opposition from NASA and specifically Jim Webb, who “opposed astronauts’ travel for that purpose.” But Humphrey thought NASA’s “official” position was wrong, so he went to the president about it. Johnson overruled Webb and before long Humphrey, along with Ed White and Jim McDivitt and their wives, were on their way to Paris as goodwill ambassadors where they were a big hit, completely overshadowing the Soviets. Ed even met and shook hands with Leonov.

Upon their return to the United States, tributes continued to pour in. They received a ticker-tape parade in Chicago and were both awarded honorary doctorates in aeronautical engineering by their alma mater, the University of Michigan. “I can hardly get used to people calling me colonel,” Ed said. “I know in a million years, I’ll never get used to people calling me doctor.” Both men were awarded the Arnold Air Society’s John F. Kennedy Award. Ed won the Society of Experimental Test Pilots Award for his spacewalk and the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award. He also paid a visit to West Point in the fall and spoke at halftime of a soccer match to rousing applause.

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