Though Alexei Leonov was the first man to walk in space, the first American to walk in space stepped out into the black a few years after Leonov.
Edward Higgins “Ed” White II performed his spacewalk as part of the Gemini 4 mission. On 3rd June 1965 Ed White stepped out into space and enjoyed the experience so much he didn’t want to return to the spacecraft at the end of the allotted time for the EVA. He had to be ordered back inside.
During his spacewalk, one of the spare thermal gloves floated out of the open hatch and became one of the first items of space debris in low orbit, though it burned up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Like many space flights, there was an element of near disaster that came with the Gemini 4 mission. There was a mechanical problem with the hatch mechanism. This made it difficult to open and shut. It was even difficult to relatch. The men managed to secure the hatch.If they hadn’t been able to, the lives of both Ed White and the Command Pilot, James McDivitt would have been in danger.
Tragedy was not far away
In March 1966, Ed White was selected as the Senior Pilot for the Apollo flight AS-204. Also assigned to this mission were Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom and Roger Chaffee. During a test of the craft on 27th January 1967, a fire broke out in the cabin. The cabin was filled with pure oxygen. The three men were all killed by asphyxiation and smoke inhalation.
White’s job was to open the hatch cover in an emergency. The position his body was found in showed that he had attempted to do so, but opening the hatch was impossible. The plug door design needed venting and due to the location of the fire, Grissom couldn’t reach the cabin vent control.
The cause of the fire was never determined, however many safety problems were addressed after the fire.
Ed White was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1997 along with Roger Chaffee but President Clinton. Gus Grissom had received his posthumous Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978.
Other recipients of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor include Pete Conrad, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Frank Borman, John Young, Jim Lovell, Shannon Lucid, Thomas P. Stafford, Kalpana Chawla, Christa McAuliffe and Laurel B. Clark