Memorial Day: The Tuskegee Airmen
May 18, 2018
June 1, 2018

First American Space Walk

Fifty-three years ago on June 3, 1965, astronaut Edward Higgins White II made history as the first American to leave his craft while in outer space. The historic “spacewalk” lasted 21 minutes and White reported that he enjoyed it very much. White became the first American to venture outside his spacecraft for what is officially known as an extravehicular activity, or EVA.

In the early 1960’s, America was locked in a “space race” with the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, the United States had been attempting to catch up. American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts had showed that humans could travel into space, survive there, and return safely to Earth. Now, both wanted to expand their national space programs with ambitious new missions.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Gemini program was the second program to send humans into space. It followed the first U.S. space program, called Mercury. The Gemini IV spacecraft, carrying astronauts James McDivitt and Edward White into orbit was launched on a Titan II rocket from Cape Kennedy (now called Cape Canaveral) Air Force Station on June 3. Mission control was directing the activity from the ground in the brand new Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. The objective was to evaluate and test the effects of four days in space on the crew, equipment and control systems.

Once in orbit around the Earth, White pulled the handle to open a hatch and he pushed himself out into the blackness.

“Okay, I’m out,” said White. He floated outside the capsule attached by a tether providing oxygen and communications from the Gemini spacecraft as they sped over Earth at 17,500 miles per hour (28,165 kilometers per hour).

“You look beautiful, Ed,” radioed McDivitt, who watched and took photographs from inside the spacecraft.

“I feel like a million dollars,” White replied.

White used a small hand-held maneuvering unit to control his movements outside the capsule. The device shot out pressurized oxygen to provide thrust and move him about in the airless void of space. White moved along the side and positioned himself in front of the Gemini capsule for a few minutes before returning.

Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the first spacewalk during the one-day Voskhod 2 mission on March 18, 1965. However, the Gemini IV mission and White’s historic spacewalk showed that the United States was quickly catching up in spaceflight capability. In the following years, the Gemini missions gave many early U.S. astronauts valuable experience in space. This experience was put to use during the Apollo missions, which began in 1967 and took American astronauts to the moon.

Learn more exciting details about Gemini IV and the space race in World Book’s A Look at Space Exploration!

(Image Credit: NASA)

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