Edward Higgins White II: America's First Spacewalker

Image of the Week for First American Spacewalk
During Gemini 4 mission on June 3, '65, Ed White became the first American to conduct a spacewalk. The spacewalk started at 3:45 PM EDT on the 3rd orbit. NASA

Edward H. White II was a NASA astronaut and  Lt. Colonel in the United States Air Force. He was among the first pilots selected by NASA to go to space as part of the America's space program. He was born November 14, 1930 in San Antonio, Texas. His father was a career military man, which meant that the family moved around quite a bit. 

Ed White attended Western High School in Washington, D.C. where he excelled in track as second-best hurdler in the area for a time. He received an appointment to West Point where he set the 400-meter hurdles record and nearly made the 1952 Olympics team. He received a bachelor of science degree from the U.S. Military Academy (1952); and master of science in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan. (1959).

On Track to NASA

After graduating from West Point, White transferred from the Army to the Air Force, became a jet pilot and attended the Edwards Air Force Base Test Pilot School. He was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Because he wanted to become an astronaut, he was unhappy about his assignment to the testing of Air Force cargo planes. However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

His test aircraft was a KC-135 which created zero-gravity conditions. He flew about five hours in weightlessness preparing four of the original seven Mercury astronauts for spaceflight as well as the two chimpanzees who journeyed to space before the astronauts. That work gave White a great deal of experience in zero-gravity conditions, and eventually this paid off when he was selected with the second (nine-member) group of astronauts.

NASA put White to work immediately. In 1962, he was pilot for the Gemini 4 mission and on June 3, 1965, became the first American to perform an extravehicular activity outside the capsule. He also served as the backup command pilot for Gemini 7, and had been selected to be command module pilot for the first manned Apollo flight.

Next Step: The Moon Mission

The Apollo program was designed to take crews to the Moon and back. It used the Saturn series rockets to lift the command module and landing capsule off Earth. The command module was designed as a living and working space for the crew, and also where one member would stay while the others went to the lunar surface in the lander. The lander itself was a living space, carried tools, a moon buggy (in later missions), and experiments. It had a rocket pack designed to lift it off the Moon to return to the command module at the end of surface operations. 

The training began on the ground, where the astronauts would familiarize themselves with the workings of the capsule and command modules. Because this was a new set of missions with new hardware, astronauts faced daily problems and situations. 

The first flight for Apollo 1 was scheduled for February 21, 1967, when it would perform a series of low-Earth-orbit tests. This required many rehearsals for the mission, with the crew spending hours in the capsule together.

The Final Mission of Apollo 1

On Friday, January 27, 1967, during a routine test of the Apollo 1 capsule, Ed White and his teammates, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee perished in a fire on the launch pad. It was later traced to faulty wiring causing a spark that ignited the pure oxygen atmosphere inside the capsule. Ed White would have been among the first three men to launch the Apollo mission to land a man on the Moon.

Ed White was buried at West Point Cemetery with full military honors. After his death he received the Congressional Medal of Honor, and is honored at the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Florida as well as the National Aviation Hall of Fame. A number of schools in the U.S. bear his name, as well as other public facilities, and he is memoralized along with teammates Virgil I "Gus" Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee at the Kennedy Space Center.  They are also featured in the book Fallen Astronauts: Heroes who Died Reaching for the Moon" and appear in several other histories of early NASA times.