After the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 by the Soviet Union, the United States would be in a race to catch up to the Soviet Cosmonauts as the U.S.S.R. racked up milestone after milestone. To Americans who had their faith in their nation’s technological prowess badly shaken, the humiliating second place finishes seemed like they would never end—until NASA Astronaut Ed White performed the first-ever spacewalk by an American.
White’s spacewalk was America’s first major achievement over the Soviet Union and marked a major turning point for the American space program, giving the American public a reason to cheer after years of false starts and second place finishes.
How the U.S. got caught flat-footed at the start of the space race and struggled to catch up
October 4, 1957 was a watershed moment in human history. The Soviet Union, long thought by the citizens of the world to be lagging behind the United States technologically, launched the first human-made satellite into orbit around the Earth. Named Sputnik-1, the satellite’s launch was announced by the Soviet Union’s state media the following day, setting off a national panic in the United States—whose nascent space program literally couldn’t get off the ground without blowing up on the launch pad.
After the Second World War, Americans generally believed that while the U.S.S.R. had the atomic bomb, they still couldn’t have recovered from the utter devastation of their country suffered during the war. 26 million people from the various Soviet Republics had been killed during the war, including more than 11 million working-aged soldiers—both men and women—and their industrial base had been bombed into rubble by either the Nazis or the retreating Red Army in a scorched Earth defense of the Motherland.
The Soviet launch of Sputnik-1 then simply couldn’t have been possible to the American consciousness and as a result the launch is often compared to the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The sudden vulnerability felt by the average American is understandable, after all, if the Russians could launch a satellite, why not a nuclear missile that could hit Topeka, Kansas?
This sense of insecurity was repeatedly compounded over the next several years as the Soviet space program continued to make steady progress while America’s newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration was in a seemingly losing race to catch up.
Soon after the first Sputnik, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik-2 into orbit, this time with a dog, Laika, on board making her the first living being to reach outer space—though she did not survive the mission.
In 1959, the U.S.S.R. launched the Luna-1 probe, becoming the first human-made object to fly past the moon. Later that year, the Luna-2 probe reached the lunar surface when it crashed into the moon’s Sea of Serenity. The Luna-3 probe orbited the moon and took pictures of the far side of the moon, the first time humans had ever seen it in the entire history of the species.
This was followed by two more dogs, Belka and Strelka, in 1960 aboard the new Vostok spacecraft. These animals survived a 24-hour orbit of the Earth and were returned safely.
In 1961, the U.S. was making progress in catching up to the Soviets, having launched a pair of primates into space for a sub-orbital flight in 1959 as well as the satellite Explorer 6 in the same year, which took the first photographs of Earth from outer space.
Still, the U.S. lagged behind the U.S.S.R.’s progress by a wide gulf and the Mercury program, designed to put an American in orbit around the Earth, was being fast-tracked as the race against the Soviet space program took on levels of industrial mobilization that was usually reserved for wartime.
Unfortunately for the Americans, the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human to reach outer space on April 12, 1961, spending 108 minutes in a single orbit around the Earth before returning safely.
Less than a month later, Alan Shepherd became the first American to reach space in a sub-orbital flight. It would be another nine months before John Glenn made the first orbit of the Earth by an American astronaut.
The U.S. managed to beat the Soviets in a successful flyby of Venus in 1962, after a successful launch of a Russian probe shortly before Gagarin’s flight, but the Soviet probe failed a week after launching. So even in this victory, it was still behind the pace of the Soviet program.
In 1963, the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to reach space, something the Americans wouldn’t accomplish for another two decades.
At this point, the race had become truly neck-and-neck but for most Americans, the Soviets still appeared to maintain a stubborn—and unnerving— lead.
Ed White scores a definitive victory for the U.S.
Edward White II took after his father in many ways. A West Point graduate and an accomplished U.S. Army pilot, White’s father brought him up into the air at age 12 in a T-6 trainer plane and let him take the control mid-flight.
He would later recall that even though “he was barely old enough to strap on a parachute…it felt like the most natural thing in the world to do.”
White would follow his father’s example and attend West Point himself, graduating in 1952 and enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. He distinguished himself flying F-86 and F-100 jet aircraft in Europe, but fate came calling in 1957 when he read an article about the prospective role of future astronauts in the new U.S. space program.
“The article was written with tongue in cheek,” he remembered, “but something told me: this is it—this is the type of thing you're cut out for. From then on everything I did seemed to be preparing me for space flight”
He applied to become an astronaut and was accepted into the program in 1962. He and eight other men underwent the rigorous training for the upcoming Gemini program, the successor of the Mercury program and the precursor to the program that would land a man on the moon, which was still in early planning.
Everyone was certain that Gemini would be the program that helped the U.S. take the lead, but again the Soviet Union beat the Americans to the next major milestone, the spacewalk. On March 18, 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov left his Voskhod-2 capsule in orbit around the Earth and became the first human to ‘walk’ in the vacuum of space, spending 10 minutes outside of his spacecraft before returning.
White’s mark on history came three months later, on June 3, when his Gemini 4 spacecraft began orbiting the Earth. On their third orbit, as the capsule approached Australia, White and NASA astronaut James McDivitt readied White for his own spacewalk. As they passed over Hawaii, White opened the hatch on the capsule and, using a pressurized air gun to maneuver, became the first American to enter the vacuum of space.
Tethered only by a 25-foot long hose that supplied him with oxygen, White orbited the Earth outside the Gemini capsule at a speed of more than 17,000 mph, over 100 miles above the Pacific Ocean.
“This is the greatest experience,” White radioed back to NASA mission control in Houston, Texas, “it's just tremendous. Right now I'm standing on my head and I'm looking right down, and it looks like we're coming up on the coast of California. There is absolutely no disorientation associated with it.”
It took 15 minutes for White to travel the distance from Hawaii to Florida and out toward the Atlantic Ocean. With sunset approaching, Houston ordered White to return to the Gemini capsule before they reached the nightside of the planet. In total, White spent 23 minutes free-floating above the Earth, more than double the length of time the Soviets were able to achieve.
“Ed White might have been euphoric during his space walk, but whatever he felt was tame compared to the American public's reaction," said Chris Kraft, flight director for NASA’s Houston mission control during Gemini 4. "The country went wild with excitement over their space program. Ed's space walk completely eclipsed the Russians. For the first time I saw real optimism out there over our chances of winning the race to the moon.”
Ed White’s tragic death
With the success of the Gemini missions, Ed White was tapped as the senior pilot for the Apollo 1 mission in 1967. On January 27 of that year, the three-man Apollo 1 crew, White, commander Gus Grisson, and co-pilot Roger Chaffee, were testing the Apollo 1 capsule on a launch pad in Florida.
The tests were going poorly during the afternoon, but the test would turn tragic at 6:31 PM when a fire broke out in the capsule while the three men were inside. With the air in the capsule being pure oxygen, the fire spread quickly, engulfing the entire cabin before any rescue could be attempted. All three crew members died in the fire.
“This determination to make sure these men did not die without cause, I believe, gave us all the strength to continue our job landing men on the moon," Kraft said. "It also brought us all closer together and made our responsibilities crystal clear. For some, it was more than they could bear. The fire on the pad took its toll beyond the deaths of three brave men.”
White, Grissom, and Chaffee, were the only U.S. deaths during the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s, but that maybe made their deaths more deeply felt by the public and were mourned by the nation and much of the world. Though his life came to a tragic end, Ed White’s tenacity and determination provided the first real achievement of the U.S. space program, which in turn helped the U.S. take the lead over the Soviets. That effort culminated with the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the lunar surface in July 1969, and the Apollo 1 mission patch bearing the names of the lost astronauts was left on the lunar surface as a token of gratitude for the sacrifice they made and extraordinary spacewalk of Ed White that helped lift the spirits of the nation when it was desperate for something to cheer for.