The First U.S. Spacewalk

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

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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.”

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.

Braving the Vacuum

Both astronauts wore spacesuits during the flight, but since White would leave the Gemini vehicle entirely, his suit was a little heavier, with more layers than McDivitt’s. During training—in a zero-G airplane and in this McDonnell pressure chamber pumped down to simulate the atmosphere at 150,000 feet—White practiced his “egress” and “ingress” from the capsule dozens of times.

The Zip Gun

White’s handheld maneuvering unit fired a burst of compressed gas to push the astronaut in the desired direction. The “zip gun” was a last-minute add-on, and was touted as more advanced technology than the Soviets had used on Leonov’s spacewalk. During and after the flight, White had nothing but praise for the gun. Keeping it close to his body so the thrust went through his center of mass, he could control his position and stop and start his momentum easily. His only regret was that the gun ran out of gas just four minutes into a 20-minute spacewalk, leaving him unable to move around except by pulling on his tether. White liked the gun so much that he told NASA debriefers he would trust it for short excursions outside the spacecraft, even without a tether. “I might not tell somebody else to do that,” he said, “but I’d be willing.”

Fitness Counts

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.

Nervous Doctors

In June 1965, with only a couple days’ worth of accumulated spaceflight experience under their belts, NASA doctors were understandably nervous about what might happen to the human body during long-duration flights. The Gemini 4 crew and chief NASA medical officer Charles Berry (pictured checking McDivitt’s blood pressure two days before launch) also had watched Soviet footage of Leonov’s heart-pounding spacewalk, which didn’t ease the doctors’ concerns. So when Berry heard White report “absolutely no disorientation” early in his spacewalk, the doctor was elated. Still, the incessant calls to check vital signs during the flight sometimes vexed the crew. During one particularly busy stretch early in the mission, McDivitt radioed down, “There’s a lot to do, and we’re having trouble keeping track of all this stuff. I’ll get the blood pressure as soon as I can get around to it.”

Titan Launch

During the countdown for their Titan II rocket launch (at 10:16 a.m. on June 3, 1965), the two rookie astronauts could hear the sounds of engines swiveling and fuel gushing through the lines. They also heard flight controllers and launch engineers chatting on the communications loop. In his postflight debriefing, White said, “From three minutes on down, it really got busy with the yak, yak, yak of everybody talking.” The Gemini 4 astronauts gently suggested that all information in those final minutes before launch be relayed through the “capsule communicator” or Capcom.

Go for EVA

For such a big moment, White’s emergence from the Gemini capsule was something of a comedy of errors. For one thing, the hatch was a struggle to open. For another, communications with Mission Control were confused. The astronauts were using a new voice activated radio, and when they talked, they couldn’t hear Mission Control. That, combined with the expected long silences between ground tracking stations (a common problem in the early space program), resulted in Mission Control missing the first part of the spacewalk. Having earlier received a “Go” from the ground, White stood up in the open hatchway, spent 10 minutes getting his equipment in order, pulled his legs up and over the hatch opening, then fired the zip gun to propel himself out into space—without physically pushing off with his hands or legs. Three minutes into the spacewalk, Capcom Gus Grissom radioed from Houston, “Has he egressed?” McDivitt answered, “He’s out, Gus, and it’s really nifty!”

“I Feel Like a Million Dollars”

White loved the experience of being outside, at least initially. “I feel like a million dollars!” he told McDivitt, who was sitting 15 feet away inside the capsule, watching. With the gun to propel him, moving around was easy and efficient. But when his gas ran out, he was left tugging awkwardly on the 25-foot, gold-covered tether as the only way to change his direction of motion. Bobbing around outside the spacecraft with little control, he felt “like a weight on the end of a string.” McDivitt was careful about firing the capsule’s thrusters, which White could occasionally see spitting white puffs of gas. “I didn’t want to sit on a firing thruster,” he said later. Another problem was the lack of handholds on the outside of the capsule to steady his motion as he swung past. Nobody had thought about that before the flight. “There just isn’t anything to hold onto,” White said.

“You Dirty Dog”

Inside, McDivitt could hear White’s boots thumping on the exterior of the spacecraft, and the repeated contact rocked the capsule enough that it began a slow roll. At one point, in his efforts to steady himself, White smeared a coating on one of the windows as he brushed past, and McDivitt joked, “You smeared up my windshield, you dirty dog!” Even with all the commotion, White managed to fire off a few photos of the capsule’s exterior, but not as many as he wanted.

“Get Back In”

It’s been suggested that White was so enraptured by his spacewalk that he refused to come back inside, but that’s not really what happened. Fifteen minutes into the EVA, after another long radio silence, Flight Director Chris Kraft and Grissom came back on and exhorted the astronaut to “Get back inside!” McDivitt joined the chiding: “Back in, come on.” Meanwhile White, still bobbing around on the tether while juggling his spent zip gun, attached camera, and other equipment, was desperately trying to capture a last photograph of McDivitt inside the open hatch. At one point, he tried pulling on the tether hand-over-hand, “walking” up the nose of the spacecraft like a mountain climber, toward the hatchway. The effort made him laugh, and, he recalled later, “Jim probably didn’t think I thought he was serious.” Then, when he finally did make it back to the hatch, it took longer than expected to sort out the tangle of equipment. It may have seemed to others that he was dawdling, but he was working hard. And he never did get his picture.

Closing the Hatch

After White finally sat down again (he struggled to pull himself down into the seat, and had to stand up again a couple of times when his legs cramped up), it was time to close and repressurize the capsule. But the hatch—which had a complicated, multi-geared latching and locking mechanism—wouldn’t cooperate. Knowing too well that they couldn’t come home if the hatch didn’t lock, the two friends tried to exert enough force to close it, but not so much that it would break. For several minutes they strained, without Mission Control being aware what was happening. Fortunately, McDivitt knew a lot about the hatch, having spent hours working with it, even disassembling the components, at the McDonnell plant where the Gemini capsule was built. Years later, he recalled those tense moments trying to get the hatch closed: “This was one of those things where we didn’t have a mission rule…and you just had to make it up as you went along…. I knew more about that hatch than probably anybody in the world, other than the technicians who’d built it. There wasn’t anybody in that Mission Control center who knew anything about it, so there was no sense in me talking to them.” Finally, after another heave, the lock engaged. Back safely on the ground, White—who had just taken America’s first spacewalk—called the 30-second battle with the door “probably the most dramatic moment of my life.” After the strenuous EVA and the hatch closing, “I was completely soaked…. Sweat was just pouring down.”

On to Gemini 5

After the spacewalk, the Gemini 4 crew spent another three and a half days in orbit, running experiments on everything from radiation levels in the capsule to photography of the Earth below. More important, they proved that astronauts could return perfectly healthy after a long bout of weightlessness. (Here they’re shown on the rescue ship after an ocean splashdown. White felt strong enough to join in a tug-of-war game with members of the crew.) Despite the glitches—maybe because of them—NASA had learned a few things about spacewalking. As McDivitt told an interviewer decades later, “We would’ve never gotten to the Moon when we did if we’d taken baby steps all the way.”

See a gallery of rare Gemini photos here.