Gemini 4: The first American spacewalk

At a Glance

Dates: 3 – 7 June 1965

Duration: 4 days, 1 hour, 56 minutes, 12 seconds

Commander: Jim McDivitt (first of two spaceflights)

Pilot: Ed White (first and only spaceflight)

Back-up crew: Frank Borman and Jim Lovell

Objectives: To test the Gemini spacecraft’s systems over a longer duration and to perform the first American spacewalk.

The Crew

Jim McDivitt and Ed White had known each other for years, even before they joined NASA. They were very good friends who had first met while studying at the University of Michigan and who lived down the street from one another. They were then part of the same class at the Air Force Test Pilot School and were both selected as part of NASA’s second group of astronauts.

McDivitt was considered one of the very smartest astronauts of the time, having graduated top of his class at university over more than 600 other students. White, meanwhile, was considered the best athlete of the astronaut corp along with the Mercury Seven’s Scott Carpenter. He had narrowly missed out on making the US Olympic hurdling team in 1952.

Gemini 4 would be the first spaceflight for both.

Ed White (left) and Jim McDivitt (right) training in the Gulf of Mexico in 1965, a month before their flight | Credit: NASA

‘Firsts’ for Gemini 4

As well as performing the first American EVA (spacewalk), Gemini 4 was notable for being the first NASA flight commanded from Mission Control at the new Manned Spacecraft Centre in Houston, Texas (now named the Johnson Space Centre). All previous flights had been run from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It was also the first flight that featured the American flag sewn onto the astronauts’ spacesuits.

The Flight

Gemini 4 lifted off from Launch Complex 19 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 3 June 1965.

During their first orbit of Earth, McDivitt attempted to conduct a rendezvous with the now-empty second stage of their Titan rocket, but it proved trickier than anticipated. There was no radar in the Gemini 4 craft for McDivitt to use to provide a precise range to the Titan, while a lack of lights on the rocket meant it was near impossible to judge the distance visually.

What’s more, NASA had not yet mastered the intricacies of orbital mechanics. Whenever McDivitt tried to move closer to the rocket he found himself moving further away instead. After being told by capsule communicator Gus Grissom that they had burned through almost 50% of their manoeuvring fuel in their attempts, McDivitt made the decision to call the rendezvous off and focus instead on the EVA.

The EVA had not initially been on Gemini 4’s flight plan. But, when the Soviet Union once again upstaged the USA by conducting the first ever spacewalk in March 1965, NASA brought their own EVA forward in their schedule. While it is common today for spacewalks from the International Space Station to last upwards of six hours, Gemini 4’s would last only twenty minutes. And, as would be the case for the rest of Project Gemini, it was the pilot (Ed White) who would conduct the spacewalk while the commander (McDivitt) stayed inside the spacecraft to monitor all the systems.

Four and a half hours into Gemini 4, the right-hand hatch of the spacecraft opened. White stood up in his seat, clutching a ‘Hand-Held Manoeuvring Unit’ (informally known as a ‘zip gun’). Using small bursts of pressurised oxygen from the zip gun, White propelled himself out into the void of space, secured to the spacecraft by an eight-foot tether that also provided him with breathable air and communication links with McDivitt and Mission Control.

“I feel like a million dollars!” he exclaimed.

Credit: NASA

White tentatively set about using the zip gun to move himself around the spacecraft, but it ran out of propellant after just three minutes. He instead had to pull on his tether and twist his body in order to move.

Twelve minutes into the EVA, CapCom Gus Grissom began to repeatedly try to hail McDivitt and White, aware of Mission Control’s desire to have White back inside the spacecraft before they passed into nighttime. But there was a problem. McDivitt’s voice-operated communication link with Grissom wasn’t working properly, and as such he could only hear what Grissom was saying if he had a switch toggled in the cockpit, which he didn’t.

Eventually, McDivitt told White that he was going to check-in with Grissom and finally flipped the appropriate switch.

“Gus, this is Jim,” he said, oblivious to the 18 attempts Grissom had already made to get in contact. “Got any message for us?

The response was immediate. “Gemini 4, get back in!”

White, though, wasn’t fully paying attention. He was still transfixed by the view of Earth below him.

Credit: NASA

White: What are we over now, Jim?

McDivitt: I don’t know. We’re coming over the West now, and they want you to come back in now.

White: Back in?

McDivitt: Back in.

Grissom: We’ve been trying to talk to you for a while here.

White: Aw, Cape, let me just find a few pictures.

McDivitt: No, back in. Come on.

Reluctantly, White made his way back to the hatch, saying, “This is the saddest moment of my life!”

He struggled back into his seat and reached above him to close the hatch. To his surprise, it failed to catch. He tried to work the fastenings into place by hand, but found that whenever he tried to push on the handles he was lifted out of his seat. McDivitt was forced to pull on him to generate some leverage. Though they did eventually get the hatch shut, they were both exhausted, perspiration beginning to fog up the inside of their helmets. Despite being NASA’s best athlete, it took several hours for White’s body temperature to return to normal due to him being so overheated. It should have been a sign to NASA that there was perhaps more to spacewalking than meets the eye but, as later Gemini missions would show, the agency still had a lot to learn.

For the rest of the four-day mission, McDivitt and White turned their attention to a series of eleven scientific experiments. The most notable of these involved the astronauts using a sextant (a navigation instrument) to measure their position against the stars, with the aim of proving whether using this technique would be possible during a flight to the Moon if there was an issue with the navigational equipment.

After 62 orbits of Earth, McDivitt and White re-entered the atmosphere and landed 43 miles short of their target in the Atlantic. Their mission was the longest NASA had made to date, lasting a total of four days, one hour, 56 minutes and 12 seconds.

They were recovered by the aircraft carrier USS Wasp.

White and McDivitt talk to President Johnson over the phone after their recovery on the USS Wasp | Credit: NASA

Medical teams waiting to examine them were pleasantly surprised about the condition the duo were in. They had lost weight (McDivitt lost two kilograms, while White lost four) but that was expected. Aside from slight fatigue, they were in almost perfect health. White even did a jig across the flight deck and joined in with a game of tug-of-war being waged between a group of Marines and midshipmen.

McDivitt would return to space as commander of Apollo 9 four years later in 1969, making him one of a very select group of astronauts to command every mission he flew. Apollo 9 was an Earth-orbital flight that was the first crewed test of the lunar module, the spacecraft later used to take astronauts down to the surface of the Moon.

For Ed White, Gemini 4 would unfortunately prove to be his only spaceflight. He was designated Senior Pilot of Apollo 1 and died in the launchpad fire of January 1967 alongside Gus Grissom (the Gemini 4 CapCom) and Roger Chaffee at the age of just 36.

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