Building on the success of the first piloted Gemini mission, NASA prepared to launch its most ambitions flight to date – Gemini IV. During June 1965, two astronauts would not only stay in orbit four days, one would attempt America’s first spacewalk. It was another example of advancing technology enabling new avenues of exploration.

Since the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, in Oct. 4, 1957, the United States had been attempting to catch up in the space race. The Russians passed the Americans again on March 18, 1965, when cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the first spacewalk during the one-day Voskhod 2 mission. However, with Gemini IV, NASA was quickly catching up.

Air Force pilots Jim McDivitt and Ed White were selected as the crew for the upcoming flight. Like John Young on Gemini III, they were members of the agency’s second group of astronauts. McDivitt went on to command Apollo 9, the first piloted test of the lunar module, and he later became manager of Lunar Landing Operations and Apollo Spacecraft Program manager.

During Gemini IV, White would become the first American to venture outside his spacecraft for what is officially known as an extravehicular activity, or EVA. The world has come to know it as a spacewalk. In the following years, it was a skill that allowed Apollo explorers to walk on the moon and American astronauts and their partners from around the world to build the International Space Station.

EVA is an example of NASA’s sustained investments to mature capabilities required to reach challenging destinations such as an asteroid, Mars and other planets. Agency administrator Charlie Bolden spoke of the 50th anniversary of Gemini IV and how its legacy remains a crucial part of spaceflight today.

“This year we celebrate 50 years since Edward White left his Gemini capsule to become America’s first spacewalker,” said Bolden speaking in his “State of NASA” address at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 2. “It was only a few years later that we landed humans on the moon.”

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Image Above: Astronaut Ed White floats in the microgravity of space outside the Gemini IV spacecraft. Behind him is the brilliant blue Earth and its white cloud cover. White is wearing a specially-designed space suit. The visor of the helmet is gold plated to protect him against the unfiltered rays of the sun. In his left hand is a Hand-Held Self-Maneuvering Unit with which he controls his movements in space. Credits: NASA/Jim McDivitt