Our Spaceflight Heritage: Fifty years of U.S. spacewalks
June 3, 2015, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first time that a U.S. astronaut stepped out of the confines of his spacecraft – and into the void. On Thursday, June 3, 1965, at 3:34 p.m. EST, the hatch of the Gemini IV spacecraft was opened, and twelve minutes later, American astronaut Edward H. White II floated out of the spacecraft, commencing the United States’ first extravehicular activity (EVA). White remained outside the spacecraft for twenty minutes – with some reports having it that he did not want to get back inside.
In 1965, the United States was embroiled in a high-profile Space Race with the Soviet Union. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union had stunned the world when it launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and since that time, the United States had been struggling to catch up. Although NASA caught up with the Soviet Union by launching its own satellite, Explorer I, on Jan. 31, 1958, and selected seven candidates for its manned Mercury Program, the Soviet Union claimed another milestone on April 12, 1961, when it launched Yuri Gagarin into space aboard Vostok 1.
NASA trailed by launching Alan Shepard on a 15-minute suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, but President John F. Kennedy knew that Shepard’s flight was barely a consolation prize in the battle for supremacy in space. On May 25, Kennedy announced to a joint session of Congress his desire to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.
In order to land on the Moon, a plethora of objectives had to be met in space: manned orbital flight, eating and sleeping, rendezvous, docking, high-orbital flight, measurements of radioactivity, and many other things – including, of course, extravehicular activity. After the conclusion of the historic one-man Mercury flights, NASA proceeded with the Gemini missions.
The Gemini capsule was a two-man spacecraft similar in shape and size to the one-man Mercury capsule, but more modular in its construction and more pilot-controlled. Whereas the Mercury spacecraft were launched on Redstone rockets for the suborbital flights and Atlas rockets for the orbital flights, the Gemini were launched on Titan II rockets.
On March 18, 1965, the Soviet Union accomplished the first spacewalk. Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov left the Voshkod 2 spacecraft while Pavel Belyayev remained inside. Leonov remained outside the spacecraft for twelve minutes, although he had great difficulty getting back through the hatch when his spacesuit overinflated in vacuum, and nearly suffered heatstroke.
The U.S.S.R.’s success prompted NASA to push ahead its planned EVA, with some newspapers reporting that a decision would not be made until “a day or two before launching” whether the spacewalk would be attempted.
Gemini IV was commanded by James A. McDivitt, an Air Force test pilot and aeronautical engineer who would go on to command Apollo 9, the first orbital test of the Lunar Module.
Ed White was also an Air Force test pilot and aeronautical engineer. He was a West Point graduate and flew F-86s and F-100s with a fighter squadron in Germany for over three years. Later he attended the Air Force test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and became a test pilot at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Like McDivitt, he was selected by NASA for the second group of astronauts, or the “New Nine”, which also included Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, John Young, Tom Stafford, Pete Conrad – all of whom would carve names for themselves in the space history books – and Elliott See, who would die in the crash of a T-38 trainer aircraft in 1966 along with Charlie Bassett.
Gemini IV launched at 11:15 a.m. EST on June 3, 1965, from Launch Complex 10 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, atop a Titan II rocket. During its first orbit, the spacecraft attempted to rendezvous with the second stage, but when 42% of its fuel was used in the orbital change, the rendezvous was canceled.
The attempted EVA was originally scheduled for the second orbit, but was delayed until the third in order to give White time to rest. At 2:33 p.m. EST, McDivitt depressurized the cabin. White’s spacesuit was pressurized at 3.7 pounds per square inch (psi). As they passed over Hawaii, White attempted to open the hatch, but the latches would not move. McDivitt had worked with the hatch in vacuum testing and knew that a spring that forced gears to engage could fail to compress in vacuum, and he was able to help White to open it. The hatch was opened at 2:34. Two minutes later, White exited the spacecraft using a hand-held gas gun, called the Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit (or “zip gun”), and tethered to the spacecraft. White depleted the zip gun in the first three minutes of his EVA, and from then on maneuvered by pulling and twisting on the tether.
As with many early space missions, Gemini IV encountered communication problems. White was unable to hear any transmissions from the ground, and McDivitt did not reply to repeated messages from Hawaii and Houston. McDivitt could only hear the Capsule Communicator (CapCom) when his radio was in its “push to talk” setting. Houston CapCom Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom sent a total of 40 messages to Gemini IV ordering White to “get back in” before the spacecraft passed into darkness.
White tried to take more pictures, but McDivitt coaxed him back in. Before terminating the EVA, White said, “It’s the saddest moment of my life.”
Unlike Leonov, White had no difficulty getting back into the spacecraft, but he and McDivitt did have trouble sealing the hatch. McDivitt was able to seal it, and the hatch was closed at 3:10 p.m. EST. Repressurization of the cabin began two minutes later.
Gemini IV successfully carried out the rest of its mission objectives, which included electrostatic charge, proton-electron spectrometer, triaxial magnetometer, two-color earth limb photos, inflight exerciser, inflight phonocardiogram, bone demineralization, synoptic terrain photos, synoptic weather photos, dim and twilight phenomena, radiation, and simple navigation.
Jim McDivitt went on to command Apollo 9 and later became Manager of Lunar Operations. He was the Apollo Spacecraft Program Manager from 1969 to 1972. According to flight director Chris Kraft, McDivitt disliked astronaut Gene Cernan and left NASA in anger when he learned that Cernan was going to command Apollo 17.
Ed White was killed in the flash fire aboard Apollo One on Jan. 27, 1967, during a routine plugs-out test on the launch pad. Former Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom and rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee also died in the fire.
Video courtesy of NASA
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles.
In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.