White II, Edward Higgens
Astronaut/Test PilotEnshrined 2009 1930-1967
At age 12, Ed got his first airplane ride – in a WWII T-6 trainer – piloted by his Dad. Later that year, Ed’s Dad taught him to fly in a high-wing Taylorcraft tail-dragger. The White family moved to Dayton, Ohio, when Ed’s Dad was transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. They lived in family quarters at Patterson Field, and Ed and his sister Jeanne attended Oakwood schools. Ed’s boundless enthusiasm, sense of adventure, competitive spirit, and ornery practical jokes are still the stuff of legend in the halls of Oakwood Junior High School.
- April 1954, he was assigned to the 22nd Fighter Day Squadron at Bitburg Air Base, Germany flying the F-86 and F-100 fighter aircraft.
- July 1959, White attended the Air Force Test Pilot Program at Edwards Air Force Base.
- White’s first mission in space was as a pilot for the Gemini 4 flight, a four-day mission from June 3-7, 1965. It was during this flight that White became the first American to make a spacewalk, spending 21 minutes outside his spacecraft.
- On January 27, 1967, White, along with Astronauts Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom, perished in the Apollo 1 fire.
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. Upon his high school graduation in 1948, White received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. 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.
After 13 rigorous months of flight 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. The aviation experience White gained proved to lay the foundation for the skill sets he would later use as an astronaut.
The first organized program at NASA began as Project Mercury in 1958. The goal was simple: to determine if humans could survive in space. They could. NASA then set the stage for another endeavor, this time in the form of Project Gemini in 1963.
In September 1962, Project Gemini was announced and NASA named White a member of the astronaut team. 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 23 minutes.
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. On January 27, 1967, the three astronauts entered the command module for a practice session while on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy, Fla. 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.”
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.
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.
For his service and sacrifice, Edward White II has earned his place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
All photos courtesy on NASA