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Edward Higgins White, II (November 14, 1930–January 27, 1967) was an engineer, a United States Air Force officer who attained the rank of Lt. Col, and a NASA astronaut. He has the distinction of being the first American to perform a spacewalk. He took his spacewalk on June 3, 1965 during the Gemini 4 mission. White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee died during a pre-launch test for Apollo 1. He was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Award for his work during the Gemini 4 mission and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor after his death.
After graduation from high school, White went on to study at West Point. He earned his B.S. In 1952 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. In the U.S. Air Force. He then attended flight school, after which he was assigned to the 22nd Fighter Day Squadron where he flew Sabre’s and Super Sabers. In 1959 he earned his M.S. in Aeronautical Engineering. A short time later, he was selected to attend the U.S Air Force Test Pilot School. Eventually, White logged more than 3,000 hours, including about 2,200 hours in jets.
In 1962, White was one of nine men chosen as part of the second group of astronauts. He was chosen to be the Pilot of Gemini 4. During his spacewalk he was reluctant to terminate the EVA at the allotted time, and had to be ordered back into the spacecraft. He was quoted as saying, ” This is the saddest moment of my life.”
After Gemini 4, he was as the back-up Command Pilot for Gemini 7 and astronaut specialist for the flight control systems of the Apollo Command/Service Module. Normal crew rotation of the Gemini program would have put him in line for a second flight as the Command Pilot of Gemini 10, making him the first of his group to fly twice. Before that could happen, he was selected as Senior Pilot (in 1966) for the first manned Apollo flight. Delays with the spacecraft’s development pushed the launch into 1967. Prior to launch, the crew entered the spacecraft on January 27, 1967 for a “plugs-out” test. Tragically, mid-way through the test, a fire broke out in the cabin, killing all three men. White’s job in an emergency was to open the hatch, which he apparently tried to do; his body was found with his arms reaching over his head toward the hatch. This was an impossible task, as the hatch opened into the cabin and was held in place by greater than atmospheric pressure. The fire increased the pressure to the point where the cabin wall ruptured, and the astronauts were killed by asphyxiation and smoke inhalation. Their deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal hazards in the early Apollo Command Module design and workmanship, and conditions of the test, including: the highly pressurized 100% oxygen pre-launch atmosphere; many wiring and plumbing flaws; flammable materials used in the cockpit and the astronauts’ flight suits; and the hatch which could not be opened quickly in an emergency.
White was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetary. The tragedy underscored the risks of early spaceflight. All hats should be off to the men who courageously faced the unknown.
We have written many articles about Edward White for Universe Today. Here’s an article about Gemini 4, and here’s an article about famous astronauts.
If you’d like more info on Edward White, check out these articles:
NASA: Edward White Biography
NASA: Detailed Biographies of Apollo I Crew – Ed White
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Space Capsules. Listen here, Episode 124: Space Capsules, Part 1: Vostok, Mercury and Gemini.