"I'm coming back in ... and it's the saddest moment of my life."
Edward H. White
June 3, 1965
Fifty years ago, an American walked in space for the first time.
The man who took the first walk in space was not an American but a Russian. It was during the heated days of the U.S.–U.S.S.R. space race, and every first in the race to the moon was treated like something truly special, even if it wasn't.
Well, maybe it was special at the time, but not so much later on.
On this day in 1965, Edward White became the first American to walk in space. He wasn't one of the original "Mercury 7" astronauts. He was part of the second group chosen — along with Neil Armstrong, who would become the first man to walk on the moon, and Jim Lovell, who flew to the moon twice but never landed there.
It was — without question — the highlight of the mission. Most people don't know that another first was planned on that mission, but it didn't work out nearly as well. McDivitt was slated to attempt a space rendezvous — an orbital maneuver that became almost routine in later missions but failed on this occasion. McDivitt made up for it a few years later as commander of Apollo 9, which was the first manned flight test of the lunar module.
(And he was Apollo spacecraft program manager from 1969 to 1972, the period in which all of NASA's missions to the moon — so far — were launched.)
The lunar module was the vehicle that carried astronauts to the surface of the moon. It was necessary for the command module to perform a space rendezvous with the lunar module before that part of the mission could commence.
So it is safe to say that McDivitt secured a better spot for himself in NASA's history later in his career than he did 50 years ago.
White, too, is remembered for something other than his space walk on Gemini 4 — something that was probably more important to the success of the program in the long run but hardly as personally triumphant. On Jan. 27, 1967, while conducting spacecraft practice, White and two other astronauts perished when a fire broke out in the pure oxygen environment of the cabin.
The astronauts' deaths revealed spacecraft flaws that NASA resolved before resuming the Apollo program, which went on to put 12 men on the moon and return them safely to earth.