Fifty years ago today, on June 3rd, 1965, 19:46, astronaut Edward White pushed away from the Gemini 4 capsule and into history as the first American to walk in space. Although a Russian had been the first to float in space, Ed White was determined to be the first to use jet propulsion to actually maneuver himself in space.
With millions of people watching it on television and newspapers excitedly printing verbatim highlights of the conversations between ground controllers and the two astronauts — White outside the spacecraft and James A. McDivitt following his progress from inside — his space walk caught the country by storm. In a time when space travel was just getting off the ground, with America looking up in the sky to him, he was having the time of his life:
“American Astronaut Edward White turned his planned space walk into a minor marathon,” reported The Washington Post’s Howard Simons, “causing his co-Astronaut and ground-based officials to plead, cajole and finally order him back into the Gemini space capsule.
As he began his space walk, tethered to the Gemini 4 and moving at speeds exceeding 17,500 mph, Ed was fully aware that all of his VOX transmissions were being heard by millions of people who were glued to their radios and television sets.
“I thought, ‘What do you say to 194 million people when you’re looking down at them from space?” White said in Newsweek in 1965. “Then the solution became very obvious to me… ‘They don’t want me to talk to them. They want to hear what we’re doing up here.’ … So what you heard were two test pilots conducting their mission in the best manner possible.”
It was clear that White was enjoying himself thoroughly as he exuberantly radioed, “I’m very thankful in having the experience to be first… This is fun!” and went on to spend 23 minutes walking in space, twice the amount of time that was planned.
While relying on a 25-foot tether to maneuver himself after his oxygen-jet gun ran out of fuel, he accidentally bumped into the spacecraft. “You smeared up my windshield, you dirty dog,” McDivitt cracked. “You see how it’s all smeared up there?”
“I’m going to work on getting some pictures… I can sit out here and see the whole California coast,”
“There is a kind of riveting unease in the acknowledgment that the white-suited figure in the photos willingly left the relative safety of a cramped, 4-ton sardine can in order to float in space— a speck in the cosmos…” said Ben Cosgrove for Life Magazine years later as he viewed them.
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