The mystery of space is not for the timid or faint of heart. Known as humanity’s final frontier, it calls out to those bold explorers willing to tackle its awesome beauty and journey into the unknown.
Edward Higgins White II was born in San Antonio, Texas on Nov. 14, 1930. Coming from a family of pilots, White became fascinated with aviation. White’s father, Edward H. White, Sr. was a major general in the Air Force and helped nurture his son’s interest.
White’s family moved to Washington, D.C. where he attended Western High School. He excelled in track as the second best hurdler in the area. Upon his high school graduation in 1948, White received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. Again, White proved his skill and ability as a runner when he set a 400-meter hurdles college record and nearly made the 1952 Olympic team. Although an accomplished athlete, White made sure to remain focused on academics. In the spring of 1952, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. During his time at West Point, White met Patricia Finegan, who would become his wife in 1953.
The first step to becoming a pilot after graduating from the world’s most prestigious military school is to enter flight training. After 13 rigorous months of instruction in Florida and Texas, White received his pilot wings. Beginning in April 1954, he was assigned to the 22nd Fighter Day Squadron at Bitburg Air Base, Germany. White spent three and a half years in Germany flying the F-86 and F-100 fighter aircraft.
White returned to the United States in 1958 and entered the University of Michigan under the Air Force Institute of Technology Program. A year later, he graduated with a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering. In July 1959, White attended the Air Force Test Pilot Program at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. for advanced aviation training. After this intense program, the young pilot was then transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio as a weightlessness and extended flight training captain within the Aeronautical Systems Division.
The aviation experience White gained proved to lay the foundation for the skill sets he would later use as an astronaut. His timing proved to be fortuitous. The launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 not only ushered in humanity’s entrance to space, but also created a race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. that would carry on for more than a decade. In response to this launching by the U.S.S.R., President Eisenhower signed into law the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This new agency would research and develop mankind’s ability to travel in outer space.
The first organized program at NASA began as Project Mercury in 1958. The goal was simple: to determine if humans could survive in space. After several test flights, the answer to this question was immediate – humans had the physical and mental capacity to endure a zero gravity environment. NASA then set the stage for another intrepid endeavor, this time in the form of Project Gemini in 1963, a mere five years after Mercury. Now that scientists knew humans could venture into outer space, their aim was to develop techniques for advanced space travel through low earth orbit flights.
In September 1962, before Project Gemini was announced, White was named as a member of the astronaut team selected by NASA. He was selected as one of nine, from a pool of 200 candidates, to become an astronaut. Soon after, White became heavily involved in the Gemini program.
White’s first time to space was as a pilot for the Gemini 4 flight, a four-day mission from June 3-7, 1965. During this flight, he made his way into the history books as the first American to make a spacewalk while outside the spacecraft for 21 minutes. Other highlights of the mission included the study of cabin depressurization, the opening of cabin doors and 12 scientific and medical experiments. On Gemini 4’s return to Earth, President Johnson promoted White to the rank of lieutenant colonel and presented him with the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and the U.S. Air Force Senior Astronaut Wings.
Despite an extremely short period of time between the Mercury and Gemini programs, technology and research at NASA progressed rapidly. Mankind was now on course to land on the moon by the end of the 1960s hoping to emerge victorious against rival U.S.S.R. To embark on this new objective, NASA unveiled its Apollo program to transport America’s heroes. Project Apollo was the next step after Gemini to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.
Based on the job White did on the Gemini 4 mission, he was selected as senior pilot for the first Apollo mission on March 21, 1966. Joining him on the mission would be command pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom and pilot Roger Chaffee.
The very first Apollo spacecraft, the AS-204, was built for spaceflight but never intended for a trip to the moon, as it lacked the necessary docking equipment. On January 27, 1967, the three astronauts entered the command module for a practice session while on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy, Fla. While inside the craft, something went wrong and a fire soon engulfed the cockpit.
Immediately prior to the accident, the crew members were running through a checklist of things they would do in space. Suddenly, Chaffee’s voice could be heard saying, “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.” White attempted to open the hatch, however the two-piece hatch was a design which required the crew to undo several bolts to remove the inner section. The hot gases produced by the fire held the hatch shut, and within a few seconds, the air pressure had risen enough to prevent the crew from escaping, killing them.
The tragic fire that captured the lives of these three brave men was the first casualties of America’s space program. NASA halted all operations and immediately launched a comprehensive inquiry into its rules and procedures. Some of the changes that took place as a result of the fire, some of which still are in use today, included redesigning the hatch so it would open outward, replacing flammable materials with self-extinguishing materials, insulating plumbing and wiring, and replacing nylon suits with coated glass fabric suits.
The launching platform where the accident occurred, while dismantled, bears two plaques in the astronauts’ honor. One says, “They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind’s final frontier. Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.” The other, “In memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice so others could reach for the stars. Ad astra per aspera, (a rough road leads to the stars). God speed to the crew of Apollo 1.”
White’s greatest legacy can be found in the path he set for others. As part of one of the first crews to aim for the moon, his example is an inspiration for all those looking to the stars.