In 1957, White read an article about the future of astronauts, and decided to become an astronaut. He believed that getting an advanced degree would improve his chances of becoming selected. In 1958, White enrolled in the University of Michigan under Air Force sponsorship to study aeronautical engineering, where he received his Master of Science degree in 1959. After it became clear that being a test pilot would improve his chances of becoming selected as an astronaut, he attended the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California in July 1959. He earned his credentials as a test pilot and was assigned to the Aeronautical Systems Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. There, he did flight tests for weapons development, and helped make recommendations for aircraft design. As weightlessness and extended flight training captain, he also piloted the planes used to train astronauts in weightlessness, such as the C-131, the C-135, and the F-100F. Some of his passengers included John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, and Ham, the first hominid in space. During his career, White would log more than 3,000 flight hours with the Air Force, including about 2,200 hours in jets, and would ultimately attain the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
In 1953, White married Patricia Finegan, whom he met at a West Point football game. The Whites had two children, Edward White III (born September 16, 1953) and Bonnie Lynn White (born May 15, 1956). White was a devout Methodist.
Edward White with Jim McDivitt (left) reading training plans for Gemini 4 mission
Edward White during EVA. During the Gemini 4 mission, White became the first American astronaut to perform a spacewalk
Another image of Edward White during Gemini 4 performing EVA
On June 3, 1965, the Gemini 4 crew was launched into space to begin its four-day mission. After separation from the Titan II upper stage, McDivitt attempted to rendezvous with the booster. However, this was unsuccessful since the astronauts were not adequately trained to rendezvous in orbit. The objective had to be abandoned since the allocated propellant had been used up, and the maneuvers had pushed the spacecraft's orbit too far away from Earth.
After the failed rendezvous attempt, White appeared tired and hot, so the EVA was postponed from the second revolution to the third revolution. At 19:46 UTC, White became the first American to make a walk in space. During his spacewalk, White used an oxygen propelled gun called the Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit to propel himself. White found the experience so exhilarating that he was reluctant to terminate the EVA at the allotted time, and had to be ordered back into the spacecraft. While he was outside, a spare thermal glove floated away through the open hatch of the spacecraft, becoming an early piece of space debris in low Earth orbit, until it burned up upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. There was a mechanical problem with the hatch mechanism, which made it difficult to open and to relatch. Luckily, McDivitt was able to get the door locked by using his glove to push on the gears that controlled the mechanism. This added to the time constraint of the spacewalk and could have threatened the lives of both men if McDivitt had been unable to get the hatch latched, as they could not re-enter the atmosphere with an unsealed hatch.
I'm coming back in... and it's the saddest moment of my life.
— Astronaut Edward H. White while reentering the spacecraft after his EVA, 
The mission also included 11 different scientific experiments, including the use of a sextant for celestial navigation.
White's next assignment after Gemini 4 was as the backup for Gemini 7 Command Pilot Frank Borman. He was also named the astronaut specialist for the flight control systems of the Apollo Command/Service Module. By the usual procedure of crew rotation in the Gemini program, White would have been in line for a second flight as the command pilot of Gemini 10 in July 1966, which would have made him the first of his group to fly twice.
In March 1966 White was selected as senior pilot (second seat) for the first crewed Apollo flight, designated AS-204. His fellow astronauts would be Command Pilot Virgil "Gus" Grissom, who had flown in space on the Liberty Bell 7Mercury mission and as Commander of the Molly Brown Gemini mission, and Pilot Roger Chaffee, who had yet to fly into space. The mission, which the men named Apollo 1 in June, was originally planned for late 1966 to rendezvous with the last Gemini mission, but the impracticality of making the Gemini capsule and systems compatible with Apollo and delays in the spacecraft development pushed the launch into 1967.
Charred remains of the Apollo 1 Command Module, in which White was killed along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee
The launch of Apollo 1 was planned for February 21, 1967. The crew entered the spacecraft at 1:00pm on January 27, mounted atop its Saturn IB booster on Launch Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy, for a "plugs-out" test of the spacecraft. The test was to demonstrate all of the space vehicle systems and procedures, which included an abbreviated countdown and flight simulation. It was not classified as hazardous since the rocket would not be fueled during the test. The test's progress was delayed by problems with a cabin odor and poor communications between the ground stations and the crew. At 6:31pm, a fire broke out in the pure oxygen-filled cabin, killing all three men.
Emergency roles had called for White to actuate the inner hatch release handle; then, Grissom would assist him in the removal of the cover, while Chaffee would maintain communications. White had apparently tried to do his part: his body was found in his center seat, with his arms reaching over his head toward the hatch. Removing the cover to open the hatch was impossible because the plug door design required venting normally slightly greater-than-atmospheric pressure and pulling the cover into the cabin. Grissom was unable to reach the cabin vent control to his left, where the fire's source was located. The intense heat raised the cabin pressure even more, to 29 pounds per square inch (200 kPa), at which point the cabin walls ruptured. The astronauts were killed by asphyxiation, smoke inhalation, and thermal burns.
The fire's ignition source was determined to be a spark that jumped from a wire on the far left of the spacecraft, under Grissom's seat, but their deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal hazards in the early Apollo Command Module design, workmanship and conditions of the test, including the highly pressurized 100% oxygen pre-launch atmosphere, many wiring and plumbing flaws, flammable materials used in the cockpit and the astronauts' flight suits, and a hatch which could not be quickly opened in an emergency. After the incident, these problems were fixed, and the Apollo program carried on successfully to reach its objective of landing men on the Moon.
White's wife Patricia received $100,000 from the life insurance portion of the contract the astronauts signed to give two publishing firms exclusive rights to the stories and photographs of the astronauts and their families. She also received $16,250 annually for the life of the contract. Patricia later remarried and continued to reside in Houston. On September 7, 1983, she took her own life after surgery earlier in the year to remove a tumor.
McDivitt-White Plaza is located outside West Hall at the University of Michigan. West Hall formerly housed the College of Engineering and counts James McDivitt and Ed White among its alumni (McDivitt earned his B.S. and White earned his M.S. at the University of Michigan).
The dismantled Launch Pad 34 at Cape Canaveral bears two memorial plaques. One reads, "They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind's final frontier. Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived." and the other "In memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice so others could reach for the stars. Ad astra per aspera, (a rough road leads to the stars). God speed to the crew of Apollo 1."
Eight months after his death, in September 1967, a postage stamp was issued by the United States Post Office, commemorating White's spacewalk. It was the first time in USPO history that the design was actually spread over two stamps (one which featured White, the other his Gemini capsule, the two connected by a tether), which was considered befitting the "twins" aspect of the Gemini mission.
Omega Speedmaster "Ed White"
The Omega Speedmaster wristwatch reference 105.003 has come to be known as the "Ed White" as this reference was worn by White during his spacewalk. The Speedmaster remains the only watch qualified by NASA for EVA use.
^McDivitt, James (June 29, 1999). "Oral History Transcript"(PDF). National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Interviewed by Doug Ward. Archived from the original(PDF) on June 22, 2011. Retrieved January 19, 2020.
^"Gemini 7". Astronautix. Archived from the original on May 17, 2019. Retrieved May 16, 2019. The backup crew for the flight, which would last up to 14 days, would be Edward H. White II and Michael Collins.
^Kluger, Jeffrey, Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon (Henry Holt & Co., 2017), p. 94. "At precisely 6:31 p.m., a spark jumped from a wire on the far left of the spacecraft, beneath Gus Grissom's seat. The wire ran beneath a little storage compartment with a metal door that had been opened and closed many times without anybody noticing that each time the door moved, it abraded a little more of the wire's insulation, finally leaving the wire free to spark at will. When the wire sparked during the plugs-out test, it ignited a small fire that stayed small for only a second or two. Accelerated by the pure oxygen, the flames climbed along the left-hand wall of the spacecraft, feeding on fabric and netting used for storage. That was the worst possible place for a fire to erupt, since it prevented Grissom from reaching a latch that would have opened a valve and vented the high-pressure atmosphere, thus slowing the flames."