Edward Higgins White II was born on November 14, 1930 in San Antonio, Texas. He graduated with the United States Military Academy Class of 1952 and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. He was a fighter pilot and test pilot, and on September 17, 1962 was selected as a member of NASA Astronaut Group 2, the “New Nine”.
In the early days of the Space Race, NASA had been upstaged by our Soviet enemies regularly, including the first ever “extra-vehicular activity” – an EVA or “spacewalk” – by cosmonaut Alexey Leonov on March 18, 1965. NASA hadn’t planned to do an EVA for some time, but it then became a priority. The next flight – Gemini 4 – would feature the first free man walking in space. It would be Ed White.
Gemini 4 launched fifty years ago today from Pad 19 on Cape Kennedy (today, Cape Canaveral) with White and Command Pilot Jim McDivitt aboard. Three revolutions after reaching orbit, the crew depressurized their spacecraft, and White took America’s first “steps” into the vacuum of space.
White spent 20 minutes outside the spacecraft, nearly twice as long as Leonov had. It was one of the last times the United States would be second in the race to the Moon. His spacewalk didn’t portend how difficult working in the microgravity of space could be – that would be discovered the hard way on future Gemini missions, but on June 3, 1965, our nation wondered how incredible White’s experience was.
We couldn’t have seen it live; television broadcasts from space didn’t happen until many years later. We had to wait until Gemini 4 returned to Earth on June 7, 1965 and McDivitt’s pictures were developed.
Ed White would likely have been one of America’s earliest Moon walkers. Tragically he was killed in the Apollo 1 fire that also took the lives of Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967. He was laid to his rest in the United States Military Academy Post Cemetery, West Point, New York.