Forty-seven years ago, this week, the United States took a huge step forward in its drive to land a man on the Moon. Aboard Gemini IV, astronauts Jim McDivitt and Ed White spent four days in orbit – longer than any previous American crew – and supported their nation’s first ‘spacewalk’. Neither accomplishment was a true ‘first’, for the Soviets had already done both, but for a relieved America the mission offered tangible proof that the lunar goal was in sight. McDivitt and White’s voyage is a case of being in the right place at the right time. When their names were announced in July 1964, Gemini Deputy Manager Kenneth Kleinknecht mentioned that one of them might perform a ‘stand-up EVA’, by opening the hatch and poking his head into the void of space. Yet it would take several months, and no small amount of lobbying by the astronauts, before such plans bore fruit.
As early as January 1964, NASA had flagged Gemini IV as the earliest possible mission on which to perform some kind of ‘extravehicular activity’, although at the time the availability of the required life-support equipment was uncertain. Throughout the year, the situation steadily improved, with AiResearch building an astronaut’s chest-mounted control pack, the David Clark Company making the space suit and McDonnell modifying its Gemini spacecraft to accommodate an EVA. When Gemini sailed through altitude chamber tests in November, the likelihood of an EVA brightened significantly. Efforts gathered pace in the wake of Alexei Leonov’s triumph and in mid-May 1965 Bob Gilruth, head of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, received approval to proceed from NASA’s top managers, including Bob Seamans, Hugh Dryden and Administrator Jim Webb.
There were concerns, however. George Mueller, the head of manned spaceflight, doubted that the EVA hardware could be ready in time for an early June launch, whilst Dryden was worried that the spacewalk might be seen as a knee-jerk reaction to Leonov’s achievement. At length, Webb asked Seamans to produce a report on why an EVA was necessary and on 25 May – with nine days remaining before the flight – Dryden scribbled his signature of approval on it. By this time, NASA had referred to a “possible extravehicular activity” in its Gemini IV press kit, released on 21 May. With the approval of Webb and Dryden, it turned from possible into positive…and it would not be a simple case of Ed White standing on his seat to poke his helmeted head into space; he would physically leave Gemini IV and manoeuvre himself around outside.
The two men destined to make history shared close parallels. Barely a year separated White and McDivitt in age, both were married to women named Pat, both earned aeronautical engineering degrees from the same institution and in the same year, both completed test pilot training at Edwards Air Force Base in California and both had secured approximately the same amount (around 2,000 hours) of jet experience. In September 1962, both were chosen as members of NASA’s second astronaut class. “Jim and I have been following right along together,” White once said. “It seems that every time we got together we were taking examinations of some kind.” The ‘exam’ on Gemini IV would be their most difficult and challenging so far.
When the Gemini mission simulator became available in Houston in November 1964, the pair began actively lobbying for an EVA on their mission. It has been remarked that, without McDivitt and White’s tenacity, the ‘G4C’ extravehicular suit might otherwise have been too far down the line to have been ready for Gemini IV. According to Barton Hacker and James Grimwood, writing in On the Shoulders of Titans in 1977, the astronauts’ role in the decision-making process “went far beyond that of the normal test pilot in determining what was to be done and when”. Still, when the EVA plan was unveiled, some observers felt that it was little more than a ploy to keep up with the Soviet Union and others simply did not realise that spacewalking had always been a primary goal for Project Gemini.
Another primary goal was to increase endurance times, with a crew spending up to two weeks in orbit, to provide physiological and psychological data for a maximum-length journey to the Moon and back. As part of this goal, Gemini IV was originally scheduled to fly for seven days, but in August 1964 it was announced that problems and delays with certifying General Electric’s fuel cells would reduce it to four days. Before launch, McDivitt jokingly told journalists that there was only enough food aboard the spacecraft “for two normal people” for four days. Backup crewman Jim Lovell could not resist taking the bait; with perfect timing, he quipped: “And these two ain’t normal!”
For White – the son of a West Point graduate and Air Force major general – the values of self-discipline, persistence and a single-minded determination to achieve his goals were ingrained in his character. “Flying was his birthright,” wrote Mary C. White in her biography of him, available on NASA’s History website, and the future astronaut first took the controls of an old T-6 trainer with his father, aged 12. An excellent academic and athlete, White served on the Military Academy’s track team as a hurdler. In 1952, he narrowly missed selection (by just 0.4 seconds) to represent the United States in that year’s Olympic Games. Right up until the end of his life, White pursued physical exercise with a passion: volleyball, handball, squash and golf, together with daily long-distance jogging, bicycle riding and back-to-back marathons of sit-ups and press-ups. Doctors could hardly find the slightest hint of fat on him and, it is said, his appetite was such that he could put away two full-course dinners and ask for dessert, with a straight face. Without doubt, he was the most physically fit of all the astronauts…an attribute which would serve him well on his gruelling EVA.
Physical conditioning was critical for White and, during training, he spent 60 hours in vacuum chambers, rehearsing the opening of Gemini IV’s overhead hatch, pushing himself outside and moving around in a mockup space suit at simulated altitudes of 55 km. In addition to his 22-layer suit, which weighed just 14 kg, he would use a hand-held manoeuvring gun, equipped with two cylinders of compressed oxygen, to move around. Yet even in the final days before launch, there was scepticism in some areas of the press that this was little more than an attempt to keep up with the Soviets. At one press conference, Chris Kraft, the lead flight director, snapped: “We’re not trying to play Mickey Mouse with this thing! I don’t think it’s very fair to suggest we’re carrying out a propaganda stunt.”
Early on 3 June, McDivitt and White were awakened and began the process of medical checks, a steak-and-eggs breakfast, suiting-up and were at the foot of Pad 19 and their Gemini-Titan launch vehicle by 7:07 am EST. Since the EVA would require the depressurisation of Gemini IV’s entire cabin – thus exposing McDivitt to vacuum, as well as White – both men underwent a ‘pre-breathing’ exercise to flush nitrogen from their blood and avoid an attack of the ‘bends’. With a familiar high-pitched whine of its engines, the Titan II booster speared for the heavens at 10:16 am, to synchronised yells of “Beautiful!” from both astronauts.
Achieving orbit shortly afterwards, McDivitt’s first task was to perform a station-keeping exercise with the second stage of the Titan…and it was here that the first difficulties arose. The stage had been fitted with flashing lights, but had never been designed as a rendezvous target and when it entered orbital nighttime, it was virtually invisible. Added to the confusion was its tumbling motion, which left the astronauts cautious about getting too close. Judging its distance by eyesight alone was problematic – McDivitt estimated it to be 130 m away, White thought it was about 70 m away – and as they fired Gemini IV’s thrusters to approach, it seemed, inexplicably, to move ‘away’ and ‘downward’. A few minutes later, the separation distance seemed to have increased…to around 600 m. Aware that he was wasting precious fuel, McDivitt asked for the recommendation of Chris Kraft: which objective was most important – the rendezvous test or White’s EVA? Since the latter was one of the main goals, the rendezvous attempt was abandoned.
Rendezvous was planned for a subsequent mission, Gemini VI, and its pilot, Tom Stafford, noted the difficulties in his autobiography, We Have Capture. “Jim’s instinctive move was to thrust toward it,” Stafford wrote, “as though he were flying formation in a jet airplane. By doing so, he increased the speed – and moved into a higher orbit, even further behind the booster. The only way to get even close to the Titan…would have been to fire thrusters ‘retrograde’ – against the direction of travel – slowing the Gemini down and dropping its orbit.” It was an early lesson in orbital mechanics: adding speed raises altitude, moving a spacecraft to a higher orbit than the target. However, paradoxically, a faster-moving vehicle actually slows in comparison to its quarry, since its orbital period – a function of distance from the centre of gravity – also decreases. To catch up with a target ‘ahead’ of them, astronauts needed to drop into a lower orbit, then rise back up in order to meet it. “It’s a hard thing to learn,” wrote Deke Slayton, “since it’s kind of backward from anything you know as a pilot.”
To be fair, both McDivitt and White had done very little rendezvous training. The station-keeping exercise had wasted 42 percent of their fuel supply. McDivitt knew that his partner was hot and tired and told mission controllers that he wanted the EVA postponed from the second to the third orbit. Chris Kraft agreed and the two men spent some time relaxing, watching the Gulf of Mexico drift ‘below’ them and chatting to fellow astronaut Gus Grissom. Next, they dived headfirst into the 54-item checklist to ready the EVA equipment. At the end of the process, White snapped a gold-tinted faceplate onto his helmet, hooked up the 7.4 m umbilical to provide oxygen and communications with McDivitt and strapped the chest pack onto his torso. He checked his camera three times, making sure he had not left the lens cap stuck on. “I knew I might as well not come back if I did,” he later quipped.
Depressurisation of Gemini IV’s cabin began over Australia, but hit a snag when White’s overhead hatch refused to unlatch. A spring had failed to compress properly. At length, four hours and 18 minutes after launch, at 2:34 pm, he cranked a ratchet handle to loosen a set of prongs lining the opening of the hatch, raised it to 50-degrees-open and poked his helmeted head into the fathomless void. White then pushed himself ‘upwards’ from his seat and caught his first awe-inspiring glimpse of Earth: the intense blue of the Pacific Ocean and, coming up to the east, Hawaii.
Losing no time, he tested the hand-held manoeuvring gun and found that it responded crisply, squirting bursts propel himself to the base of Gemini IV and then to its nose. Within minutes, its gas supply was gone and White spent the remainder of his 21 minutes outside twirling, twisting and hand-pulling himself backwards and forwards along his tether. Inside the spacecraft, McDivitt had the difficult task of keeping Gemini IV steady. The long tether was also troublesome, as it kept tugging America’s first spacewalker towards the rear of the spacecraft, whose thrusters periodically spurted a nasty mix of monomethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide – ‘hypergolics’ which White definitely did not want on his suit.
Approaching the California coastline, Gus Grissom asked for photographs. “Get out in front where I can see you,” McDivitt called, and White complied. In less than a quarter of an hour, he had ‘walked’ from the central Pacific, crossed California, and, very soon, the two astronauts were gliding serenely over Houston, talking to Grissom. Suddenly, McDivitt’s voice burst with excitement. “There’s Galveston Bay, right there,” he yelled. “Hey, Ed, can you see it on your side of the spacecraft?” White certainly could and he snapped a photograph with the 35 mm camera. McDivitt was also taking pictures, although he admitted that “they’re not very good”. Ironically, those images of White, tumbling in space, turned out to be among the most iconic of the Sixties. A 16 mm movie camera also captured his tumble, backdropped by a cloud-studded, blue-and-white Earth.
Each time McDivitt or White spoke, the Gemini’s voice-activated system cut off messages from Mission Control…and since they spoke a lot during those exhilarating minutes, Grissom had a hard time trying to contact them. At length, with some urgency in his voice, he made himself heard.
“Got any messages for us?” asked McDivitt.
“Ed! Come in here!” yelled Grissom. “Gemini IV, get back in!”
Describing the end of his historic EVA as “the saddest moment of my life”, White brought his feet back down through the open hatch, onto his seat and finally below the instrument panel. To assist his partner, McDivitt turned up the cabin lights as a guide. Gemini IV had sailed over the eastern Atlantic Ocean into orbital darkness and White had ‘walked’ across most of the Pacific and all of the United States…in 21 minutes. His last view was of the entire southern portion of Florida, parts of Puerto Rico and Cuba.
His pulse of 50 beats per minute, though, soared to 178 in these final moments. He closed the hatch over his head and reached for the handle to lock it, realizing that it would be as hard to seal as it had been to open. As White pushed on the handle, McDivitt pulled onto him to offer him some leverage. Eventually, the hatch was secured. The official end time of the first American EVA was 3:10 pm, some 36 minutes between hatch opening and closure…and less than five hours into Gemini IV’s four-day mission. White had far exceeded his suit’s cooling capacity – producing severe condensation in his helmet and sweat streaming into his eyes – and the hatch problems prompted Mission Control to tell him not to re-open it to discard unwanted equipment.
In his post-flight debriefing, White recounted that his hand-held manoeuvring gun worked in pitch and yaw axes, but in roll it was more difficult, without using excessive fuel. He experienced no vertigo or disorientation, nor did he feel any inkling of the tremendous speed at which he was travelling. The next four days, however, would be anything but comfortable. Their freeze-dried or dehydrated food – beef pot roast, banana pudding, fruit cake and even ‘space sandwiches’ – sounded appealing, but the need to mix them with water and knead until mushy lessened their attractiveness. Spaghetti was rehydrated by water pistol. ‘Washing’ (if it could be described as such) was done with small, damp cloths, urine was dumped overboard and faeces were stored in self-sealing bags with disinfectant pills.
In the cramped confines, a bungee cord had been provided to keep the men’s fitness up, but even White found that his desire to do strenuous work dwindled as the mission dragged on, perhaps due to a lack of sleep. The men remained in good spirits, although on one occasion McDivitt told flight surgeon Chuck Berry that he felt “pretty darn woolly” and needed a bath. When the two men returned to Earth on 7 June 1965, they were described as heavily bearded and sweaty, their faces lined with tiredness, although that did not prevent McDivitt from letting out a whoop of joy on the deck of the recovery ship Wasp. Both astronauts had lost weight, but were in good physical shape after four days…to such an extent that, 24 hours after splashdown, White spotted a group of Marines and midshipmen having a game of tug-of-war and joined them for 15 minutes. Although ‘his’ team lost, White certainly appeared fit and healthy.
Congratulations from President Lyndon Johnson was accompanied by joint Air Force promotions from Major to Lieutenant Colonel and NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal. Elsewhere, the University of Michigan – both men’s alma mater – awarded them both doctorates in astronautical science. “I can hardly get used to people calling me Colonel,” joked White. “I know in a million years I’ll never get used to people calling me Doctor!” Before they could accept their new accolades, however, McDivitt and White needed to take a shower…but White wondered what all the fuss was about. “I thought we smelled fine,” he said of their ‘distinct aroma’, after four days without a proper wash. “It was all those people on the carrier that smelled strange!”