NASA Celebrates 50 Years Of Spacewalks

Edward Higgins White became the first American to enter the vacuum of space 50 years ago today.

On June 3, 1965, astronaut Ed White became the first American astronaut to leave the safety of his spacecraft and enter the void of space when he performed NASA’s first spacewalk. The exercise was conducted as a part of the Gemini 4 mission, the first multi-day spaceflight by the United States.

The mission’s primary objective was to evaluate the effects of prolonged spaceflight and to demonstrate that humans could remain in space for extended periods of time. Its secondary objective was to conduct the first Extravehicular Activity, or EVA, by an American astronaut and to evaluate the ability of the Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit, also known as the zip gun, to control the astronaut’s movement.

Edward H. White, II performs the first spacewalk by an American astronaut on June 3, 1965. Image Credit: NASA / James McDivitt

Edward H. White, II performs the first spacewalk by an American astronaut on June 3, 1965. Image Credit: NASA / James McDivitt

When White exited the hatch, the only thing preventing him from becoming separated from his spacecraft was a 25-foot tether. Despite the risks involved, White enjoyed floating freely in space during his 20-minute spacewalk, using the zip gun, which shot pressurized oxygen, to fly around the spacecraft.

In fact, White was so enthralled by the experience that he did not want to return to the spacecraft when commanded to. The transcript of the conversation between White and Command Pilot Jim McDivitt plays more like a mother calling to her son, who is playing outside, to come in for dinner.

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.

However, White was not the first person to perform Extravehicular Activity. Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first human to perform a spacewalk just months earlier on March 18, 1965, maintaining the Soviet Union’s early lead in the Space Race. [Russian Cosmonaut Celebrates 50 Years Since First Spacewalk]

Since humans first entered the void in 1965, spacewalks have become a regular feature of human spaceflight. Hundreds of spacewalks have now been conducted serving a wide variety of purposes, including repairing spacecrafts, deploying satellites, and installing new modules on the International Space Station.

Watch NASA’s documentary celebrating 50 years of spacewalks: