Astronaut Ed White, the First American Space Walk, and the Camera He Used

Astronaut Ed White, the First American Space Walk, and the Camera He Used

2400 1600 Cheyenne Morrison

I was seven years old the day that Neil Armstrong took that famous “giant leap for mankind” upon the Moon. I vividly remember taking the day off from school so that we could watch this incredible event on television. My Father’s great desire was to own the Omega Speedmaster, the watch that was worn on the Moon; but I was more fascinated with the cameras used in space. While everyone knows about the famous Hasselblads and Nikon F cameras used by NASA on the Apollo missions, there are many others cameras that have experienced the vacuum of space. One such machine was a special Zeiss Ikon Contarex used in the first ever American space walk by astronaut Ed White.

It was on June 3rd, 1965 that White became the First American to walk in space, and it was this first spacewalk that set the stage for future work in the vacuum of space, on the Moon, and during later NASA missions. White’s mission, and the larger Gemini program, paved the way for Apollo missions to the Moon, and had four main goals – to test an astronaut’s ability to fly long-duration missions (up to two weeks in space); to understand how spacecraft could rendezvous and dock in orbit around the Earth and the Moon; to perfect re-entry and landing methods; and to further understand the effects of longer space flights on astronauts.

The Zeiss Ikon Contarex Special 35mm camera featured a 50mm Planar lens and was mounted on Astronaut Ed White’s Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit (HHMU). The entire contraption was attached to the astronaut by a surprisingly thin wrist tether. Compressed oxygen in two bottles, one forward-facing jet and two rear-facing jets, allowed the astronaut to make small movements in outer space.

The actual camera that Ed White took into space is held in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum – Udvar-Hazy Center. The 50mm f/2 lens Nr. 2375476 that he used is held in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Along with the Zeiss Ikon Contarex that White used on the spacewalk, the mission also carried a 16mm camera, and a Hasselblad 500 C camera with a Planar 80mm f/2.8 lens onboard. The images of White in space were shot by Jim McDivitt on Kodak Ektachrome MS (S.O. -217) specially manufactured for NASA missions by Kodak.

The spacewalk started at 3:45 p.m. EDT on the third orbit, when White opened the hatch and used the hand-held maneuvering oxygen gun to push himself out of the capsule. Initially, White propelled himself to the end of the eight-meters-long tether and back to the spacecraft three times using the hand-held gun. He quickly found that the hand-held maneuvering gun responded crisply, squirting bursts to propel himself to the base of Gemini IV and then to its nose. He then went fifteen feet (five meters) out, and began to experiment with maneuvering, but within minutes the gun’s gas supply was exhausted. White spent the remainder of his twenty-one minutes outside (twice the planned time) twirling, twisting, and hand-pulling himself backwards and forward along his tether. White was tethered to the Gemini IV while moving at speeds upwards of 17,500 mph. He said he felt suspended as he looked down on the beauty of the Earth.

I thought, ‘What do you say to 194 million people when you’re looking down at them from space?’” White said in Newsweek in 1965.“Then the solution became very obvious to me. They don’t want me to talk to them. They want to hear what we’re doing up here. So what you heard were two test pilots conducting their mission in the best manner possible.

White’s spacewalk, at a time when space fight was in its infancy, captured the attention of the world, with millions following it on television and radio and newspapers publishing verbatim highlights of the conversations between ground controllers and the two astronauts, with White outside the spacecraft and James A. McDivitt inside. 

McDivitt was taking pictures, although he admitted that “they’re not very good.” Ironically, those images of White tumbling in space turned out to be among the most iconic of the entire space program. A 16mm movie camera also captured White tumbling in space, backdropped by a cloud-studded, blue-and-white Earth.

Ed White exits the Gemini IV capsule. On the right, the capsule door and the twenty-five foot umbilical cord connecting White to the capsule are visible. This photograph was taken by Gemini IV Commander James McDivitt, still inside the spacecraft.

To allow White to use the camera in space while wearing bulky gloves, it was modified by increasing the size of the film wind lever and shutter release button. The viewfinder was removed, as White was unable to use it while wearing a helmet. ANSCO D-200 colour transparency film was chosen to allow higher shutter speed, with a “nominal” exposure of f/11 at 1/500 of a second.

White managed to make twelve images in space, an unsurprisingly small number considering his hindered movement and the difficulty of operating a camera in a space suit. White had to hold the “Zip Gun” as they called it, in his right hand as close as possible to his center of gravity. To depress the shutter he had to use his left hand. The restrictions of movement, his gloves and limited vision from his EVA visor made taking images very difficult, and most were of poor quality. White found maneuvering with the device easy, especially the pitch and yaw, although he thought the roll would use too much gas. He maneuvered around the spacecraft while McDivitt took photographs. White had far exceeded his suit’s cooling capacity, producing severe condensation in his helmet and sweat streaming into his eyes. Imagine floating in the vacuum of space, your heart racing, covered in sweat and being yanked around on the end of a tether; it was amazing he managed any shots at all. 

During a January 2005 interview featured in his book, Gemini 4: An Astronaut Steps Into the Void, Australian author Colin Burgess mentioned to McDivett that the photographs he had taken of his colleague Ed White on EVA forty years earlier were still some of the most iconic and recognizable from the space program. 

Fantastic, aren’t they,” the astronaut agreed. “My wife and I were having our picture taken over at the Country Club (recently) for a book they were putting together, and I was asking the photographer about his cameras and stuff, and he said ‘Gee, you really know about cameras. You seem to be interested in them.’ I said ‘Yeah, you know …’ and so he was telling me all his credits, and stuff like that, and I said, ‘Yeah, well I’ve got a couple of LIFE magazine covers.’ He looked at me like I was nuts and my wife said to him, ‘Yeah, he really does! But you know, they’re sort of special.’ So he was really impressed.”

“I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.” Ed White

This was a picture taken by my teammate, James A. McDivitt, on the third revolution of Gemini IV. I had a specially designed spacesuit which had twenty-one layers of thermal and micrometeoroid protection. My face was protected by a double gold-plated visor which provided protection from the unfiltered rays of the Sun. In my hand I held a small self-maneuvering unit which gave me control of my movements in space. On my chest was an oxygen chestpack that regulated the flow of oxygen to my suit and provided an eight-minute supply of emergency oxygen. I was secured to the spacecraft by a twenty-five-foot umbilical line and a twenty-three-foot tether line, which were secured together and wrapped with a golden tape for thermal insulation. On the top of the hand-held self-maneuvering unit was mounted a 35mm camera to record the event from outside the spacecraft. – Ed White

Throughout the mission White couldn’t help but express his joy. He said “I’m very thankful in having the experience to be first. This is fun!” At one point in the mission White shifted his focus to capturing the beauty in front of him. “I’m going to work on getting some pictures. I can sit out here and see the whole California coast.”

All too quickly the journey came to a close but White didn’t want it to end and was hesitant to return to the spacecraft. According to his wife, Patricia White, some believed that White suffered from euphoria or narcosis of the deep. But White said he was just sorry to see it end. Here are the final moments as transcribed by Time magazine.

Each time McDivitt or White spoke, the Gemini’s voice-activated system cut off messages from Mission Control, and since they spoke a lot during those exhilarating minutes, Grissom had a hard time trying to contact them. At length, with some urgency in his voice, he made himself heard.

“Got any messages for us?” asked McDivitt.

“Ed! Come in here!” yelled Grissom. “Gemini IV, get back in!”

McDivitt: “They want you to get back in now.”

White (laughing): “I’m not coming in… this is fun.”

McDivitt: “Come on.”

White: “Hate to come back to you, but I’m coming.”

McDivitt: “Okay, come in, then.”

White: “Aren’t you going to hold my hand?”

McDivitt: “Ed, come on in here. Come on. Let’s get back in here before it gets dark.”

White: “I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.”

Ed White’s Legacy

The official end time of the first American EVA was 3:10 p.m., which spanned thirty-six minutes between hatch opening and closure. White had “walked” across most of the Pacific Ocean and the United States in twenty-one minutes, his last view being the Caribbean where he could see the entire southern portion of Florida, parts of Puerto Rico, and Cuba. White’s spacewalk had riveted the entire world, millions of people had tuned in on television and radio, and he became an international symbol of the American space program. The photos of White shot by McDivitt were featured on the cover, and a sixteen page spread, in LIFE magazine on June 18, 1965. 

Edward Higgins “Ed” White II, Lt Col, USAF, aeronautical engineer, U.S. Air Force officer, test pilot, and NASA astronaut was tragically killed on January 27, 1967, at age thirty-six. He died alongside Virgil I. Grissom and Roger B. Chafee during pre-launch testing for the first manned Apollo mission at Cape Canaveral. He was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for his flight in Gemini IV and awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor posthumously. His son Ed White III has a website dedicated to his father. 

If you’d like to add a Contarex to your collection, you can find them on eBay

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Cheyenne Morrison

In today’s digitally obsessed world I've chosen to return to old-school analogue photography, vintage cameras, classic manual focus lenses, and expired film. This combination of elements results in images that cannot be created digitally.

All stories by:Cheyenne Morrison
  • Merlin Marquardt May 10, 2019 at 9:39 pm

    Great article. Thanks.

  • Great article. It was not a Leica 😉 despite Leica are best things on earth … 😉

  • Really interesting!

  • amazing read, thanks! the extract from the conversation is quite hilarious and exciting at the same time

  • Getting back to the Zeiss Ikon Contarex, this was one of those “Unobtainium” cameras reserved for large company CEOs, Doctors, Engineers, or other highly paid proefssionals. For “mere mortal” photographers, the best we could do were the Pentax, Minolta, Canon, and Nikon SLRs. (I was a Nikkormat FTN user back then.)

    One afternoon, many years later, when I was taking Kodachrome slides of judged/about-to-be-awarded Orchids, I saw and heard a Contarex being used. This was at an all-Orchid-club show, and the photographer was a silver-haired sort who looked like a Doctor or high end professional. I noticed that the Contarex’s iris remained closed down until he advanced the film/cocked the shutter. In the not-too-noisy exhibition hall, the Contarex sounded like a small cannon going off. (Or someone dropping a load of heavy metal objects on the floor.)

    I went back to setting up my Orchid photography set of Nikon F2 Photomic with 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, heavy duty Bogen tripod, and a Capro/Sunpak RL-80 ringlight. If the enitire plant from pot to top was required, I had the choice of an AC-adapted Braun RL-515 or battery powered Nikon SB-600 to provide enough light for Kodachrome 25 or 64. A Nikon FM2 could be used as backup or as a black-and-white camera, loaded with Kodak Panatomic-X.

    I’ve read a Zeiss camera repairman curse and malign the “too fine focusing ring helical” of Aluminum bearing on Brass or Aluminum, that can seize solid if the lens is sued too much/too quickly/too roughly. (True or false?) In any case, I am glad that I couldn’t afford “West German mechanical engineering perfection” and had to settle for “rough Aluminum and Brass mechanical construction.”

  • Thanks so much for this cool, informative article about a great American hero

  • thanks for the good article.
    I remember how sad I was to hear of Ed White’s death, with his colleagues.

    the Cpntarex wascompley, to the point of being over-enginered-I heard some of the lenses focusing helicals were so finely threaded, they could be stripped, just by fast totation. the camera0s warranty claims, were significant to Ziess, unsustainable. the lenses were siperb.
    later STPER – Auper Wlectronic models, lenses, etc. were too expensive to make in Germany to sell at affordable prices at retail.
    A proposed collaboration, with Asahi IOptical(Pentax), failed to complete. – the object to have lower unit production costs
    The eventual tie-up with Yashica, acheived this. the latter made optical glass; was expert on the electonicization in camera design, perfect for Ziesss and a sucessful move by them. this continued after Kyocera rook over Yashica, in 1974, until 2005. Porsche Design, were aso design consultants occaisionally ussed during thiss period.
    ZiessFoundation remains Germany’s swnior oprtical company. at Oberkochen, their advanced design capabilities sstill create some of the best camera lens designs, long may that contnue.

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Cheyenne Morrison

In today’s digitally obsessed world I've chosen to return to old-school analogue photography, vintage cameras, classic manual focus lenses, and expired film. This combination of elements results in images that cannot be created digitally.

All stories by:Cheyenne Morrison