Edward H. White II became America’s first spacewalker in June 1965, during the Gemini IV mission. Less than two years later he was one of the three Apollo 1 astronauts killed in a pad fire at Cape Kennedy.
“Ed” White was born on November 14, 1930, in San Antonio, Texas. The son of a career military officer, White grew up on several different Army and Air Force bases. After graduating from Western High School in Washington, D.C., he received a Bachelor of Science degree from the United States Military Academy in 1952. White earned a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1959, and was given an honorary Doctorate in Astronautics from the University of Michigan in 1965.
Upon leaving West Point, Ed White chose a career in the Air Force and received flight training in Florida and Texas, then spent three years in Germany with an Air Force fighter squadron, flying F-86s and F-100s. In 1959, he graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, as an experimental test pilot with the Aeronautical System Division. In his Air Force career White logged over 1,950 hours in jets.
NASA selected Ed White as an astronaut in 1962. He was Pilot on Gemini IV, which was launched Kennedy Space Center on June 3, 1965. James A. McDivitt was Mission Commander. During their first day in orbit, White stepped outside the spacecraft for a 21-minute spacewalk, maneuvering on the end of a 25-foot lifeline by using a hand-held jet gun. Although Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov had been the first man to float in space, three months earlier, White was the first person to use jet propulsion to actually maneuver while performing an EVA (extravehicular activity).
During the remainder of the Gemini IV mission, McDivitt and White completed twelve scientific and medical experiments. After sixty-two orbits around the earth in 1,609,700 miles, the Gemini capsule splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean on June 7, 1965, ending four days, one hour, and 56 minutes in space.
Edward H. White received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and the U.S. Air Force Senior Astronaut Wings for his performance during Gemini IV and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. On October 19, 1966, White was named as part of the first three-man Apollo flight, based in part on his outstanding EVA performance. White was named Senior Pilot, named the Command Pilot was Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee was to be the Pilot for the Apollo/Saturn 204 mission (later renamed Apollo 1).
On January 27, 1967, the three astronauts took their positions in the Apollo 204 command module for a “plugs out test” of the spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center. Hours into a long and difficult day, the crew had yet to conduct the emergency egress procedure. This called for Ed White, who was in superb physical condition, to push the heavy escape hatch open, allowing for a quick exit from the spacecraft. At 6:31 PM, after the test had begun, Chaffee radioed that there was a fire in the cockpit, fueled by the pure oxygen in the cabin. White struggled to open the hatch doors, but was unable to do so before succumbing to the flames and smoke.
Lieutenant Colonel Edward White, Roger B. Chaffee and Virgil “Gus” Grissom died on January 26, 1967, in the flash fire at Launch Pad 34-A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. White was buried with full military honors at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He and his crewmates were posthumously awarded Congressional Space Medals of Honor.