America's First Space Walker Didn't Want to Come Back

On June 3, 1965, Ed White stepped out above Hawaii and, for twenty minutes, became the first American human spaceship.

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Jun 3 2013, 8:10pm

On June 3, 1965, Ed White stepped out above Hawaii and, for twenty minutes, became the first American human spaceship. He would have been up there longer if it hadn't been for the spoilsports down at mission control.

As he surfed behind Gemini 4 as it orbited the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, the only thing keeping White from flying off into the void was a 25-foot tether. As he tossed about a hundred and twenty miles above oceans and countries, using a small propulsion device to occaionally steer, his colleague James McDivitt looked on from inside the capsule. White had already beaten the time set two and a half months earlier by the first man to walk in space, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

"In many ways, it was an American propaganda stunt—there was no question about it," said Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director who had scrambled on the President's orders to help accelerate the timeline for America's first spacewalk. But White, who had already finished his checklist, experimenting with how to move in space, wasn't thinking about that stuff. He was thinking about that view.

McDivitt: They want you to get back in now.
White (laughing): I’m not coming in… This is fun.
McDivitt: Come on.
White: Hate to come back to you but I’m coming
McDivitt: Gosh, you still got three and a half more days to go, buddy
Gemini Control: You’re got about four minutes to Bermuda.
White: I’m trying to…
McDivitt: O.K. O.K. Don’t wear yourself out now. Just come in… How you doing there?
White: … whenever a piece of dirt or something goes by, it always heads right for that door and goes on out.
McDivitt: O.K., come in then.
White: …aren’t you going to hold my hand?
McDivitt: No, come on in the… Ed, come on in here.
White: All right. I’ll open the door and come through there…
McDivitt: Come on. Let’s get back in here before it gets dark.
White: It’s the saddest moment of my life.
McDivitt: Well, you’re going to find it sadder when we have to come down with this thing.
Gemini Control: Gemini 4…
White: I’m fixing to come in the house.
Gemini Control: Gemini 4. Get back in… You getting him back in?
McDivitt: He’s standing in the seat now and his legs are below the instrumental panel.
Gemini Control: O.K., get him back in. You’re going to have Bermuda in about 20 seconds.

Houston's urgency wasn't just about safety; a technical error had cut communication between Earth and the spacecraft during much of the spacewalk, making controllers in Houston frantic. The CAPCOM in Houston, Gus Grissom, tried to talk to Gemini 4 a total of 40 times in 13 minutes before he got a response. Near the end of the spacewalk, McDivitt decided to switch to normal communications; the warnings from control began to pour in. White took one last look around. In one glance, he took in the state of Florida, Cuba, a string of islands. "The view was spectacular," he said later. 

Gemini wasn't just about the spacewalk. This was NASA's first mission to carry multiple scientific experiments, including the use of a sextant to explore the use of celestial navigation for flights in the Apollo program, a test for in-flight radiation, and a couple of photo experiments involving a 70 mm Hasselblad camera. (There was also an attempt to rendezvous and dock with a rocket while in orbit, but this did not work; Later Gemini missions would be successful.)

The spacewalk, which White captured using a camera set up on the spacecraft, had a goal too, he would explain: to answer the question, "could man control himself in space?" (A similar question—how to maneuver on an asteroid—motivated NASA's now defunct NEEMO experiment, an underwater simulation off the coast of Florida that I paid a visit to last year). The answer looked good—using an air-pressure "space gun," and a 25-foot tether, a human would be able to direct him or herself in space.

A spaceship was important too, of course, but so too was a spacesuit. White's messy, soft armor was a technological tour de force, blending the human body with the spaceship. (In 1965, the same year that White took his walk, NASA would award its spacesuit contract to Playtex, the underwear maker. A Playtex spinoff has been making NASA's suits ever since, though others, including Brooklyn's Final Frontier Design, are developing new suits.) 

"The spacesuit, in the end, is an object that crystallizes a lot of ideas about who we are and what the nature of the human body may be," the architect Nicholas de Monchaux told Geoff Manaugh in 2011 . But "then, crucially, it’s also an object in which many centuries of ideas about the relationship of our bodies to technology are reflected." It was during the Apollo program, after all, that the word cyborg was coined.

But in 1965, reported a narrator in a NASA film that year, another kind of science fiction was becoming a household word, at least at NASA. "People were already adding a new word to their vocabularies—E.V.A. It stood for 'extra vehicular activity.' Some people were uncertain if you said E.V.A or Eva. But regardless of the pronunciation, it would become an abbreviation of our time."

White would be selected for the Apollo program, but his pioneering walk in space would be his last encounter with the void. Three years later, on January 27, 1967, he, Grissom and Roger Chaffee would die on the launch pad, when their Apollo 1 craft went up in flames. But his little trip had already laid a path for all future spacewalkers; EVAs are still delicate things, but NASA's now good enough at them to order them, when needed, on an impromptu basis, as happened last month on the space station

As White reluctantly reeled himself back to the spacecraft, without the benefit of the gun propulsion unit, his wife wrote later, "some contended that the delay was an indication that he had suffered from a kind of narcosis of the deep or euphoria." What did he really feel? Some spacewalkers have described being overtaken by an "overview effect," the "experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere."

Ed claimed that he was sober. "I can say in all sincerity and honesty that I enjoyed the EVA very much, and I was sorry to see it draw to a close, and I was indeed reluctant to come in. But when the word came that the EVA phase was over, I knew it was time to come in, and I did."