Politics & Policy

Americans in Space

Ed White outside the Gemini 4 capsule, June 3, 1965.
Fifty years ago next month, Ed White made America’s first space walk.

We’re coming up to the 50th anniversary of one of the best-known photographs in history: astronaut Ed White floating in space with a gem-like blue Earth floating beneath him. Ed White made America’s first space walk on the first day of NASA’s Gemini 4 mission, June 3, 1965. Ed White, tethered to the Gemini capsule by a gold hose, was on the cover of Life; White and his photographer, Gemini 4 commander Jim McDivitt, were on the cover of Time.

White and McDivitt were both members of NASA’s second astronaut class, the “New Nine,” who followed the original “Mercury Seven.” The New Nine are generally considered the all-time greatest group of astronauts. They included Frank Borman, who commanded the first flight to the moon, Apollo 8, and Jim Lovell, who navigated Apollo 8 and commanded Apollo 13. Lovell was the first man to fly in space four times, and the first to fly to the moon twice.

Also: Pete Conrad, who commanded the first American space station and the second moon landing, and Tom Stafford, the pilot for the first space-rendezvous mission (Gemini 6A), the commander of the “dress rehearsal” for the first moon landing (Apollo 10), and the commander of the first joint American–Soviet space mission, Apollo–Soyuz.

And John Young, who flew on the first Gemini mission, flew to the moon twice, on Apollo 10 and Apollo 16, which he commanded; commanded the first Space Shuttle flight and the first Spacelab mission, and became the first man to fly in space six times.

That’s seven. Number eight is Elliot See, who died in a plane crash while he was training to command Gemini 9. The ninth of the New Nine was Neil Armstrong — who, by the way, also commanded Gemini 8, the first space-docking mission.

See died before ever flying in space. Ed White died during preparation for Apollo 1, when a fire broke out in the capsule; White, Roger Chaffee, and Gus Grissom suffocated before they could open the hatch to escape. Apart from See and White, the other New Niners have all written or cooperated in the writing of official biographies. Except Jim McDivitt.

Of the exceptional group that was the New Nine, McDivitt was the first chosen to command a mission, Gemini 4 (the second manned Gemini flight). Later, he was chosen to command the first manned mission to include a lunar module, Apollo 9 — in an earth-orbital test, he was the first man to fly that spindly, insect-like spaceship that would land on the moon. (In order to test the moon lander, McDivitt had passed up an opportunity to command Apollo 8 on its historic first moon orbit.) After Apollo 9, he took over as manager of lunar landing operations, and then manager of the Apollo spacecraft program for Apollos 12 through 16.

Before he became an astronaut, McDivitt was a distinguished test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base; before that, he flew 145 combat missions over Korea. He retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general.

During an interview with space historian Colin Burgess, McDivitt insisted that “he had absolutely no interest at all in writing his memoirs or having them penned for him.” According to a space enthusiast who tried to put McDivitt in touch with the co-author of astronaut Tom Stafford’s autobiography, McDivitt “doesn’t think he can contribute anything that hasn’t already been said.”

June 3 will be the 50th anniversary of Gemini 4, the space-race mission that caught the lagging U.S. up to the USSR.

June 3 will be the 50th anniversary of Gemini 4, the space-race mission that caught the lagging U.S. up to the USSR. It lasted four days and, during 66 orbits of Earth, included the first American space walk and the first use of a sextant for celestial navigation, developing techniques that would be essential to the moon flights. It was also the first mission to include American flags sewn onto the astronauts’ space-suits, an idea the crew came up with after NASA told them they couldn’t name their capsule “American Eagle.” Ed White won’t have the chance to write a Gemini 4 memoir, but McDivitt still could.

Who knows who has influence with McDivitt? No one outranks him astronautically. Perhaps Congress can celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gemini 4 with a joint resolution calling on General McDivitt to get to writing. Call your congressman.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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