Fifty years ago on Wednesday, NASA astronaut Ed White stepped out of his space capsule and walked in space for the first time.
That 20-minute excursion opened up a new way to explore space for U.S. astronauts.
For White, the spacewalk was bittersweet. During the excursion, White said: “This is the greatest experience, it’s just tremendous.”
But he was not exactly eager for it to end.
“It’s the saddest moment of my life,” White said as he came back into the capsule from his walk in space on June 3, 1965.
White’s spacewalk was part of NASA’s Gemini program. He left the confines of his Gemini capsule while astronaut James McDivitt stayed inside, monitoring the walk.
Since White’s historic spacewalk (called an extra-vehicular activity, or EVA, in NASA-speak), the space agency has continued to send men and women into the vacuum of space with only a well-designed suit to protect them. In total, NASA astronauts have performed more than 260 spacewalks, including the EVAs that put people on the moon for the first time.
But NASA wasn’t the first space agency to put people in space, or even have them venture outside of a vehicle. Soviet-era cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the first ever spacewalk on March 18, 1965.
“In some ways, White made spacewalking seem deceptively simple,” Robert Pearlman, editor of the space history website collectSPACE told Mashable in an interview. “When later Gemini astronauts tried to follow him outside, they found trying to work in space much more difficult.”
“It wasn’t until Buzz Aldrin had the chance to train underwater in neutral buoyancy for his Gemini 12 EVA that he was able to demonstrate a controlled spacewalk,” Pearlman said.
Training in water is now the “gold standard” for spacewalking, according to Pearlman.
Active astronauts during NASA’s space shuttle era performed many spacewalks, including the first untethered walk in space. That EVA, performed by astronaut Bruce McCandless, produced one of the most striking images in the history of human spaceflight: McCandless floating above Earth with a sea of black space behind him. (McCandless used a jet-pack-like piece of technology developed by NASA to maneuver while untethered.)
Shuttle-era spacewalkers worked to salvage satellites and repair the Hubble Space Telescope as well as repair the International Space Station.
“Without the path first blazed by Ed White — and before him, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov — our current platform in space would not be possible,” Pearlman said.
Spacesuits and spacewalking methods have also evolved since White’s spacewalk in 1965.
“The spacesuits have continued to improve, too, with more advanced life support systems, negating the needed for an umbilical, and improving mobility,” Pearlman said. “White’s 20-minute spacewalk is only a small fraction as long as astronauts spend outside in the vacuum of space today, with most EVAs lasting upwards of six hours.”
Crewmembers living and working on the International Space Station today still perform spacewalks to maintain various parts of the orbiting laboratory. Astronauts on the station are in the process of rearranging the Space Station for the scheduled arrival of privately-built vehicles carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS by the end of 2017.
Even these seemingly unrelated spacewalks owe something to White’s first EVA, according to Pearlman.
“When astronauts someday walk on the surface of Mars, they will do so in part because of the journey begun by Gemini 4 and the 20-minute spacewalk performed by Ed White 50 years ago,” he said.
White died tragically in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, along with two other astronauts.