The First American Spacewalk Happened 52 Years Ago Today
Ed White backs out the hatch of Gemini 4. © NASA

52 years ago today, a hundred miles above the Pacific Ocean, astronaut Ed White opened the hatch of his Gemini 4 capsule and pushed himself outside, becoming the first American to walk in space (and trusting a 25-foot tether to keep him from becoming the first American to get lost there).

White carried an oxygen-jet gun which fired bursts of pressurized oxygen to give the astronaut a push in the opposite direction. He had a blast using the gun to propel himself to the end of the tether and back three times, which took about a minute each trip, before the gun ran out of propellant.

He spent the next 20 minutes pushing himself out and hauling himself back in under his own power, while astronaut James McDivitt watched from the capsule and took photos.

Later spacewalks have had more rigorous itineraries, but in 1965, just stepping outside the confines of a spacecraft was groundbreaking enough. The first spacewalk had occurred just a few months prior, on March 18, when Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov stepped out of the Voskhod-2 capsule for about 12 minutes — and nearly died in the process.

White’s spacewalk was much more pleasant, which you can hear beginning at around 3:24 in this NASA footage.