This Day in Tech History

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An American Walks In Space

597px-Ed_White_First_American_Spacewalker_-_GPN-2000-001180June 3, 1965:  An American Walks In Space

One hundred and 20 miles above the earth, Major Edward H. White II opens the hatch of the Gemini 4 and steps out of the capsule, becoming the first American astronaut to walk in space. Attached to the craft by a 25-foot tether and controlling his movements with a hand-held oxygen jet-propulsion gun, White remained outside the capsule for just over 20 minutes. As a space walker, White had been preceded by Soviet cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov, who on March 18, 1965, was the first man ever to walk in space.

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Originally planned for the second revolution, the astronauts postponed the EVA until the third after McDivitt decided that White, following the stress of the launch and the failed rendezvous, looked tired and hot. After a rest, the pair finished performing the checklist for the EVA. Flying over Carnarvon, Australia, they began to depressurize the cabin. Over Hawaii, White pulled the handle to open his hatch, but the latches failed to move.

Astronaut James McDivitt (right) in the Gemini IV capsule along with Astronaut Ed White.

Astronaut James McDivitt (right) in the Gemini IV capsule along with Astronaut Ed White.

Fortunately, McDivitt knew what the problem was, because the hatch had failed to close in a vacuum chamber test on the ground, after which McDivitt worked with a technician to see what the cause was.  A spring, which forced gears to engage in the mechanism, had failed to compress, and McDivitt got to see how the mechanism worked. In flight, he was able to help White get it open, and thought he could get it to latch again.

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Tied to a tether, White floated out of the spacecraft, using a Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit (informally called a “zip gun”) which expelled pressurized oxygen to provide thrust for controlling his travel. He went fifteen feet (five meters) out, and began to experiment with maneuvering. He found it easy, especially the pitch and yaw, although he thought the roll would use too much gas.  He maneuvered around the spacecraft while McDivitt took photographs. White enjoyed the experience, but exhausted the HHMU gas sooner than he would have liked.

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White tried to use taking more pictures as an excuse to stay out longer, and McDivitt had to coax him in. He finally came back in after a total of approximately 20 minutes.  He said, “It’s the saddest moment of my life.”  By the time he got in, the spacecraft had entered darkness.  The hatch proved to be as stubborn to relatch as it was to open. This would have been disastrous, resulting in both men’s deaths on reentry.  But McDivitt was able to fix the mechanism once again, so White could close it.

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White’s 20-minute space walk was the mission’s highlight, with McDivitt’s photographs being published worldwide.

Ed White’s Tragic Death

The launch of Apollo 1 was planned for February 21, 1967.  The crew entered the spacecraft on January 27, mounted atop its Saturn IB booster on Launch Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy, for a “plugs-out” test of the spacecraft, which included a rehearsal of the launch countdown procedure.  Mid-way through the test, a fire broke out in the cabin, killing all three men.

While strapped into their seats inside the Command Module atop the giant Saturn rocket, a wire bundle that was worn due to misplacement and a sharp-edged access door, sparked and ignited flammable material. This quickly grew into a large fire in the pure oxygen environment. The speed and intensity of the fire quickly exhausted the oxygen supply inside the crew cabin. Unable to deploy the hatch due to its cumbersome design and lack of breathable oxygen, the crew lost consciousness and perished. They were: astronauts Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, (the second American to fly into space) Edward H. White II, (the first American to “walk” in space) and Roger B. Chaffee, (a “rookie” on his first space mission).

Close-up view of the interior of the Command Module shows the effects of the intense heat of the flash fire

Close-up view of the interior of the Command Module shows the effects of the intense heat of the flash fire

After the incident, these problems were fixed, and the Apollo program carried on successfully reaching its objective of landing men on the Moon.

Amazing footage of Ed White in America’s first space walk

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