White, Edward Higgins, II

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WHITE, Edward Higgins, II

(b. 14 November 1930 in San Antonio, Texas; d. 27 January 1967 in Cape Kennedy [now Cape Canaveral], Florida), U.S. Air Force test pilot and one of the second group of U.S. astronauts (the New Nine) who in 1965 became the second person to walk in space and the first spacewalker to control his movements and maneuver around the outside of the spacecraft.

White was the son of Edward Higgins White and Mary (Haller) White. His father, a major general, had pioneered balloon flight and heavier-than-air flight for the U.S. Army Air Corps. In addition, two of his uncles had distinguished themselves in the army and the Marine Corps. Perhaps because of his father's interest in flying, the young White developed an early fascination in aircraft; as a treat, his father took him on a flight in an AT-6 training plane when he was twelve years old.

White's family moved to Washington, D.C., before he reached secondary school, and there he attended Western High School. He excelled in athletics, especially track and field. After graduating from Western in 1948 he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, graduating in 1952 with a B.S. in military science. In 1951 he married Patricia Eileen Finegan; they had two children. At West Point he was an athletic standout; he was invited to the U.S. qualifying meet for the 1952 Olympic Games and barely missed going to the games to compete in the 400-meter hurdles.

Following his graduation from West Point, White transferred from the army to the new U.S. Air Force to pursue his interest in flying. In flight school in Florida he qualified as a jet pilot and then was sent to Bad Tolz, Germany, to attend survival school. He was stationed in Germany for three-and-a-half years, flying the fighter craft F-86 Sabres and F-100s.

From reading a magazine in 1957, White learned that the United States might soon be looking for astronauts, so he transferred stateside to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, believing an advanced engineering degree would enhance his chances of joining the space program. At Michigan he met the future astronaut James McDivitt. After graduating with an M.S. in aeronautical engineering in 1959, White trained to be a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He received his test pilot credentials in 1959 and was sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where he tested a wide variety of cutting-edge aircraft and equipment. He flew some of the first seven U.S. astronauts (the Mercury Seven) in large cargo aircraft in which they experienced weightlessness when he sent his planes into steep dives.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began looking for nine more astronauts, and White underwent numerous unpleasant tests to become one. On 17 September 1962 he was named as one of the New Nine. He loved his work and threw himself into his mission assignment: the designing of the controls for the Gemini and Apollo programs, which put him in the company of the second American in space, Gus Grissom. When the NASA command center was relocated to Houston, Texas, White moved his family to El Lago, a Houston suburb.

In July 1964 NASA designated Major McDivitt as the commander of the second Gemini spaceflight, with White as his partner. They worked well together. Indeed, White's upbeat outlook was welcomed by Grissom and the other Mercury Seven astronauts. White's craft, the Gemini 4, was launched on 3 June 1965. During this flight, White took his famous space walk. Several weeks earlier, on 18 March 1965, the Russian cosmonaut Alexi Leonov had entered a space lock in Voskhod 2 and, after the lock was depressurized, had exited the craft and floated in space for ten minutes. While the Americans did not have the space lock, they did have a small "gun" that shot gas and could be used to maneuver in space. When White exited Gemini 4, after the entire cabin had been depressurized, he maneuvered joyously in space while hundreds of millions of people listened to the transmissions among Grissom on the ground, McDivitt, and him. He climbed all over the spacecraft, but his gun quickly ran out of fuel and he had to use the cord that attached him to the ship for maneuvering; it took a seemingly long time to get him back inside Gemini 4. In June 1965 White was promoted to lieutenant colonel for his exploits.

White was named to be a pilot on Apollo 1, the prototype Moon voyager that was to be tested by flying it in Earth orbit. Grissom was the commanding officer, and both were very concerned about numerous badly designed systems in the craft. White insisted that all of the controls be the same on each of the interlinked capsules that made up an Apollo craft. On 27 January 1967 he slipped into the center seat of Apollo 1, between the astronauts Grissom and Roger Chaffee, to test the craft's equipment and systems. After several hours of testing, a fire broke out from an electrical short circuit. NASA used pure oxygen in its spacecraft (the Russians used ordinary air), and the fire consumed all of the oxygen in twenty-two seconds, killing White and his companions. The escape hatch was over and behind White's head, and he required a minimum of ninety seconds to lift a ratchet up over his head to unfasten its bolts. Thereafter, the hatch was redesigned. White is buried in the West Point U.S. Military Academy Post Cemetery in New York.

White was among the most promising of America's astronauts. His exceptionally high intelligence, enormous capacity for taxing work, and sense of duty seemed likely to result in his becoming a notable leader. He turned his 1965 space walk into a true test of a human being's ability to work in space. His insistence on making all of the Apollo craft have the same controls may have saved lives; the consistent controls were especially valuable during the Apollo 13 crisis, when that mission's three astronauts had to switch among the various components of their craft and control their return to Earth with vehicles not intended for that purpose.

Current Biography Yearbook (1965) offers information on White's family heritage and his life. "A (Long) Walk in Space," Washington Post (4 June 1999), provides a reprinted account of White's behavior during his space walk. Jamie Murphy, Benjamin W. Cate, and James O. Jackson, "It Was Not the First Time," Time (10 Feb. 1986), describes how White died. Gregory P. Kennedy, "Jet Shoes and Rocket Packs: The Development of Astronaut Maneuvering Units," Space World (Oct. 1984), offers a lively account of how White's maneuvering "gun" contributed to the development of maneuvering units for spacewalkers. See also Mary C. Zornio, "Ed White," Detailed Biographies of Apollo 1 Crew, on NASA's website. An obituary is in the New York Times (28 Jan. 1967).

Kirk H. Beetz