Astronaut Ed White popped open the hatch of Gemini 4 on June 3, 1965 and stepped out into the boundless and beautiful universe.
If ever there was a son who followed in his father’s footsteps, it was San Antonio native Edward Higgins White II. Ed Sr. was a graduate of West Point, who made a career of the Air Force advancing to the rank of major general.
The elder White got in on the ground floor of military aviation piloting airships and the Air Force’s first powered winged crafts. He also sparked his namesake’s interest in flying by letting the 12-year old take the controls of a trainer in the middle of a flight. Thinking back to the day that changed his life, Ed Jr. reminisced, “It felt like the most natural thing in the world to do.”
After finishing high school in Washington, D.C. in 1948, Ed received the eagerly anticipated acceptance letter from the United States Military Academy. In spite of the time-consuming curriculum, he excelled in several sports and came within four-tenths of a second of qualifying for the 1952 Olympic team in the 400-meter hurdles.
Upon graduation from West Point, Ed joined the Air Force and learned to be a pilot. He trained on jets at the James Connally Air Base in Waco before it was converted into a municipal airport in 1968. As a commissioned officer, he spent the next three and a half years in West Germany in the cockpits of F-86 Sabres and F-100 Super Sabres.
Soon after the Soviet Union stunned the world with Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite, in the fall of 1957, Ed White read a magazine piece about a new job description — astronaut.
“The article was written with tongue in cheek, but something told me this is it. This is the type of thing you’re cut out for,” he told a Life interviewer. “From then on, everything I did seemed to be preparing me for space flight.”
But it was not like that opportunity came knocking. He made it happen by earning a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan while still in uniform, and then by becoming a test pilot after hearing the original seven astronauts NASA chose for Project Mercury all had that occupation in their resumes.
White was putting experimental planes through their paces at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, when the space agency first took notice. He flew the cumbersome cargo aircraft, forerunner of the “Vomit Comet,” that introduced wouldbe spacemen to zero gravity.
White’s laser-focused ambition paid off in 1962 with his selection as one of “the next nine” astronauts for the Gemini program from a list of more than 200 candidates. He patiently waited his turn to ride the rocket, which came in 1965 as half of the two-man crew for the four-day mission of Gemini 4.
NASA’s closely guarded secret was to upstage the Soviets with the very first walk in space. However, either by accident or design, the Russians once again beat the Americans to the punch, when cosmonaut Alexei Leonov spent 10 minutes outside the Voskhod 2 capsule 46 days ahead of the Gemini 4 launch.
A Titan II rocket blasted Ed White and crewmate James McDivitt into the heavens on June 3, 1965. The astronauts got right down to business executing the prime objective of the four-day mission as White opened the hatch on the third orbit and peered into the solar system.
Trembling with excitement, he propelled himself beyond the cramped confines of the capsule with a “puff ” from his hand-held “maneuvering gun.” His lifeline was a 25-foot gold-encased tether connecting him to the space craft and containing the umbilical cord with his oxygen supply.
White was on top of the world literally and emotionally.
Talking to fellow astronaut Gus Grissom back in Houston, he gushed, “This is the greatest experience. It’s just tremendous. Right now I’m standing on my head and I’m looking right down, and it looks like we’re coming up on the coast of California.”
After White shrugged off tactful reminders that he had overstayed his welcome, NASA flight director Chris Kraft broke in and ordered him to get back in the capsule.
Like a little boy told to come home for dinner, White reluctantly obeyed.
Pulling himself toward the open hatch, he said, “This is the saddest moment of my life.”
In his book Flight: My Life In Mission Control published in 2002, Kraft wrote, “Ed White might have been euphoric during his space walk, but whatever he felt was tame compared to the American public’s reaction. The country went wild with excitement over their space program. For the first time I saw real optimism out there over our chances of winning the race to the moon.”
Ed White’s dream of walking on the moon never came true. On Jan. 27, 1967, he perished with Grissom and Roger Chaffee in a freak flash fire during a launch-pad test of their Apollo I command module. His parents, who lost Ed’s sister and brother in their 20s, had to bury their last living child.