These three words alone could sum up Edward Higgins White II. The son of a West Point graduate and Air Force major-general, he was born on 14 November 1930 in San Antonio, Texas, and his parents instilled in him from a very early age the values of self-discipline, persistence and an absolute single-minded determination to achieve his goals. ‘‘Flying was his birthright,’’ wrote Mary C. White in her biography of him, published by NASA, and, indeed, he was aboard an old T-6 training aircraft with his father – and taking its controls – at the tender age of 12. In fact, White’s father remained active as a pilot during 35 years of Air Force service.
Throughout his childhood, White travelled to bases scattered across the United States, from the East Coast to Hawaii, and, despite the semi-nomadic lifestyle, excelled both academically and as an athlete. In fact, it was only whilst enrolled in Western High School in Washington, DC, when he came to investigate college admission policies, that his lack of continuous residency posed an obstacle. With an extensive history of family service in the military, ‘‘there never seemed to be any question,’’ White said later, ‘‘that I would go there too’’. He was admitted to the Military Academy at West Point to study for a bachelor of science degree and excelled in academics and athletics: serving as a half-back on the football team, making the track team and setting a new record in the 400 m hurdles. His athletic
credentials were so impressive that he narrowly missed selection (by just 0.4 seconds) for the United States’ track team in the 1952 Olympics.
Whilst at West Point, White met his future wife, Pat Finnegan, and upon graduation in 1952 followed in his father’s footsteps by enlisting in the Air Force. Initial flight instruction in Florida and receipt of his wings were followed by assignments in Germany, where he piloted F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre fighters and completed the Air Force Survival School in Bad Tolz. His aviation career took a new path in 1957, when he read about plans to hire astronauts and “something told me: this is it – this is the type of thing you’re cut out for. From then on, everything I did seemed to be preparing me for spaceflight’’. By now married and the father of two children, White returned to the United States and enrolled in a master’s programme at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, specialising in aeronautical engineering. He was convinced that such a qualification would give him the academic edge over other astronaut candidates. It was whilst in Michigan that he met an undergraduate named Jim McDivitt.
White completed his degree in 1959, the same year that the Mercury Seven were introduced to the world. His next step on the road towards the hallowed membership of NASA’s corps was to achieve test-piloting credentials, after which he was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, evaluating research and weapons systems and making recommendations for improvements to aircraft design and construction. Whilst in Ohio, he also flew cargo aircraft on parabolic flights to prepare the Mercury astronauts for their weightless missions. “Two of my passengers were John Glenn and Deke Slayton,’’ he said later. “Two other passengers of mine were Ham and Enos, the chimpanzees.” In flying such missions, White would estimate that he “went weightless” at least 1,200 times before his selection to join NASA’s astronaut corps.
When the call went out in April 1962 for volunteers for the second astronaut team, then-Captain White’s was one of the first applications and five months later his perseverence proved successful. However, neither he, nor McDivitt, could have anticipated the sheer outpouring of adoration they received when they moved into the El Lago neighbourhood in Harris County, Texas: groups of children asking for their autographs and screaming “Astronauts in the house!’’ before either man had even begun training! Despite his credentials and drive, White did not see himself as a hero, but he certainly stood out for the old heads of Project Mercury. They regarded him as “a man who, when asked an intelligent question, will answer thoughtfully and to the point. . . but will rarely volunteer information’’.
Basic training included helicopter airdrops in pairs into the Panama rainforest, where they spent days with iguana, boa constrictor and palm hearts as their foodstuffs. White had always pursued physical exercise with a passion akin to religious faith: volleyball, handball, squash and golf were the staples of his sporting diet, together with daily long-distance jogs, bicycle rides to work and even squeezing a rubber ball whilst running to build strength in his hands and arms. He set up a climbing rope in the backyard of his El Lago home and was said to perform 50 sit – ups and 50 press-ups, back-to-back, without so much as a sharp intake of breath. Without doubt, he was the most physically fit of all of the astronauts – the Mercury
Seven included – and this conditioning would prove essential in undertaking America’s first spacewalk.
Physicians, in fact, remarked that they could not find the slightest hint of fat on White’s 77 kg frame. His appetite, though, was voracious, and it was said that he “could put away two full-course dinners at one sitting and then ask for dessert with a straight face!’’ His almost superhuman agility was remembered clearly by fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet; their backyards were separated by a tall fence. One night in early 1964, a fire broke out in the Armstrongs’ home and White, heroically, was first on the scene with a water hose. “Still to this day,’’ James Hansen wrote in his biography of Armstrong, “Janet vividly recalls the image of Ed White clearing her six-foot fence. ‘He took one leap and he was over.’’’
After basic astronaut training, White was assigned to monitor the design and development of the Gemini flight controls, a task he appreciated ‘‘because it involves the pilot’s own touch – the human connection with the spacecraft and the way he manoeuvres it’’. As part of his work, White campaigned and succeeded in securing a standard hand controller to be used in all of NASA’s manned spacecraft. ‘‘It seemed inconceivable to me,’’ he said, ‘‘that… an astronaut would fly toward the Moon in an Apollo using one kind of stick, them climb into the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module, later renamed the Lunar Module] and use a different kind of controller to land him on the Moon.’’ Landing on the Moon and becoming the first to set foot on its surface was immensely important to White and, sadly, his death in January 1967 means that no one will ever know if he could have achieved his most exalted goal.
‘‘His goal,’’ said his father, ‘‘is to make that first flight’’. He would have a lot of competition.