Wednesday, June 3, 2009

America catches up with the Russians

June 3, 1965 was the date on which the Americans caught up with the Soviet Union, in terms of proving the nation's capabilities in manned spaceflight. Ed White II became the first American to "walk" in space, less than 3 months after Alexei Leonov performed a similar feat.

The Soviets trumped the Americans in many important "firsts" during the early years of the space race. It was frustrating for me as a kid - of course I knew that we Americans were superior but we always seemed to be getting beat. I can only imagine how infuriating it was to America's adults, and to the Government, Department of Defense, and NASA in particular.

Ed White's EVA in Gemini IV brought us up to par on all of the important technical capabilities that the Russians had demonstrated. From that date forward, the US clearly became the leader in the race to the Moon, as we publicly tried out complex techniques in orbit change, rendezvous, docking, and performing useful construction tasks outside of the spacecraft that would be needed to execute a successful lunar mission.

There were no cameras on board the Gemini IV capsule, so we couldn't watch the spacewalk live. I clearly remember listening to it on TV. I don't recall if it was being broadcast live, or if I listened to a replay at a later time. I do remember that this was on an afternoon when we lived in North Carolina, and the spacewalk did occur in the afternoon Eastern Daylight Time, so perhaps it may have been a live news broadcast.

The photos that we saw in Life magazine a week later, after Gemini IV returned from orbit, were incredible. Unaccustomed to the strange sight of someone outside of a space capsule, it was sometimes hard for me to tell exactly what I was looking at. The tether and nitrogen jet gun were strangely alien. I remember being particularly intrigued by the blackness of space as reflected in Ed White's eerie! Where was his face? But I knew from these photos that my concept of spaceflight would never be the same again.

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