A Standout Among Standouts: Astronaut Ed White (1930-1967)
In the book A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, space historian Andrew Chaikin describes Ed White this way:
“Even among the astronauts, Ed White had always stood out; a strapping six-footer who had barely missed becoming an Olympic hurdler….In 1965, after he became the first American to walk in space, White easily wore the mantle of a national hero. There appeared to be no limit to how far he might go.”
Ed White’s journey to becoming a space-walking astronaut began with military flight service. He graduated from West Point in 1952, after which came flight training, a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, and test pilot training. He was selected for the second group of NASA astronauts known as “the next nine.”
With Jim McDivitt, he spent four days in June 1965 orbiting the Earth as pilot of Gemini IV, the United States’ first space mission to extend beyond Mercury-Atlas 9’s thirty-four hours. Although a Soviet crew had completed a multi-day mission, they hadn’t made any data available about the condition of the returning cosmonauts. The successful return of Gemini IV allowed the U.S. to continue long-duration flights, which eventually led to the flights to the Moon in the Apollo program.
During Gemini IV, White also scored another U.S. “first” by becoming the first American to complete a spacewalk.
White was selected as senior pilot for what was planned to be the first crewed mission of the Apollo program, Apollo 1. He and his other two crewmates, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, found themselves presented with an interesting autograph request one evening after a 1966 World Series game.
The request came from a fan who caught a foul ball pitched by LA Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax that day, in game 6 against the Baltimore Orioles at Dodger Stadium. The fan worked for North American Aviation, the company that built the Apollo command and service modules, so he recognized the three astronauts when he came upon them at dinner that evening. They agreed to sign his World Series baseball.
Ed White died the following year when, on January 27, 1967, a fire erupted during pre-launch testing for Apollo 1. He perished alongside his crewmates, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee.
White received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for his flight in Gemini IV and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He is remembered for his strength and bravery.