The first American to walk in space did so on June 3, 1965
It was exactly 50 years ago—on June 3, 1965—that astronaut Edward White stepped into space.
White wasn’t the first human to do so. A few months earlier, the USSR had sent Alexei Leonov to make those first tentative tumbles through the vacuum. The news of his secrecy-shrouded accomplishment sent shudders throughout the American side of the space race. But White, the first American to experience a spacewalk, was still making history.
For one thing, as TIME proclaimed in its headline about the spacewalk, he was “closing the gap” between the Soviet Union and the United States. Though Leonov had gotten there first, White spent double the time outside the spaceship and, NASA boasted, was able to maneuver his way around rather than floating helplessly. The mission, Gemini 4, represented a new stage of manned spaceflight in the U.S., which was to the previous Mercury missions “what a Thunderbird is to a Model T,” TIME noted.
And for another thing, walking in space was just plain cool. Though the USSR released grainy photos of Leonov in space, White’s mission came complete with the full transcript of what the experience was like. As TIME reported:
He stood on top of his spaceship’s white titanium hull. He touched it with his bulky thermal gloves. He burned around like Buck Rogers propelling himself with his hand-held jet. He floated lazily on his back. He joked and laughed. He gazed down at the earth 103 miles below, spotted the Houston Galveston Bay area where he lives and tried to take a picture of it. Like a gas station attendant, he checked the spacecraft’s thrusters, wiped its windshield. Ordered to get back into the capsule, he protested like a scolded kid. “I’m doing great,” he said. “It’s fun. I’m not coming in.” When, after 20 minutes of space gymnastics, U.S. Astronaut Edward Higgins White II, 34, finally did agree to squeeze himself back into his Gemini 4 ship, he still had not had enough of space walking. Said he to Command Pilot James Alton McDivitt: “It’s the saddest day of my life.”
Read more about the flight, here in the TIME Vault: Closing the Gap