White, Edward Higgins Ii (1930–1967)

By: Kevin Brady

Type: Biography

Published: July 27, 2009

Updated: June 1, 2017

Edward Higgins White II, Air Force test pilot, astronaut, and the first American to conduct an extravehicular activity (EVA), or space walk, was born in San Antonio, Texas, on November 14, 1930. He was the son of Edward Higgins White, Sr., an aeronautics pioneer and major general in the United States Air Force. As a child growing up in a military family, young Edward moved to various bases. At the age of twelve, he flew in a T-6 trainer with his father. The experience proved to be profound and reinforced his love of flying. White attended Western High School in Washington, D.C., then attended the United States Military Academy at West Point where he received a bachelor of science in 1952. While at West Point, he met Patricia Eileen Finegan whom he later married. They had two children.

Following White's graduation from West Point, he was commissioned in the United States Air Force. After receiving flight training, White was transferred to the Air Force Survival School in Bad Tolz, Germany, where he flew F-86 and F-100 fighter jets. In 1957 White returned to the United States where he enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Michigan. In 1959 White received an M.S. in aeronautical engineering. That same year NASA selected the nation's first astronauts from a pool of qualified military test pilots. The space agency had selected seven individuals for the astronaut corps on the basis of engineering skills and test pilot experience. White, who wanted to become an astronaut, attended the Edwards Air Force Base Test Pilot School in 1959. Before joining NASA, White served as a test pilot with the Aeronautical Systems Division at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. While stationed at the Air Force base, White made test flights for research and weapons systems development. He also wrote several technical reports regarding improvements in aircraft designs and construction. At Wright-Patterson he tested C-135 aircraft to create zero-gravity conditions for passengers John Glenn and Deke Slayton, two of the original seven astronauts. This experience later helped White in the astronaut selection process.

In September 1962 White and eight others were selected as the second group of astronauts. The group included Neil A. Armstrong, Frank Borman, Charles Conrad, James A. Lovell, Jr., James A. McDivitt, Elliot See, Jr., Thomas P. Stafford, and John W. Young. Upon his selection White and his family moved to Houston to be near the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center). After extensive training White worked on the Gemini spacecraft's flight control systems. On July 27, 1964, White was selected as the pilot for the Gemini 4 space flight. On June 3, 1965, during the mission, White became the first American to walk in space when he conducted an extravehicular activity which lasted nearly twenty-two minutes. For the space walk White utilized a handheld maneuvering unit which fired bursts of freon-nitrogen gas to control his movement. For the Gemini 4 mission and his space walk he earned the NASA Space Flight Medal and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Michigan. White achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. In March 1966 NASA named White as the senior pilot for the Apollo-Saturn 204 mission (later redesignated Apollo 1). On January 27, 1967, White and fellow astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom and Roger Chaffee were killed when flash fire erupted aboard the Apollo spacecraft during a launch simulation test at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The accident and subsequent investigations led to the implementation of new safety measures that directly impacted the Apollo program.

White, a Methodist, had received Tau Beta Pi honors in engineering and Sigma Delta Psi honors in athletics. He had been an active member of Toastmasters International and was an associate member of the Institute of Aerospace Sciences. He was on the Executive Council of the Cub Scouts and coached Little League. He was buried at West Point Cemetery. In 1997 he was awarded, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Dallas Morning News, September 18, 1962, June 9, 1965, January 28, 1967. Henry C. Dethloff, Suddenly, Tomorrow Came: A History of the Johnson Space Center (NASA History Series SP-4307, 1993). Ivan D. Ertel, Roland W. Newkirk, with Courtney G. Brooks, The Apollo Spacecraft: A Chronology, Volume IV, January 21, 1966–July 13, 1974 (NASA History Series SP-4009, 1978). James M. Grimwood, Barton C. Hacker, with Peter J. Vorzimmer, Project Gemini Technology and Operations: A Chronology (NASA History Series SP-4002, 1969). New York Times, October 20, 1966. Mary C. White, "Detailed Biographies of Apollo I Crew—Ed White," NASA History (http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/Apollo204/zorn/white.htm), accessed July 13, 2009.

  • Education
  • Military Institutes and Flight Schools
  • Aviation and Aerospace
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Kevin Brady, “White, Edward Higgins Ii,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/white-edward-higgins-ii.

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July 27, 2009
June 1, 2017