Fifty years ago today, around 3:45 in the afternoon, NASA astronaut Ed White eased open the hatch of the Gemini IV capsule. He squirted a puff of air from an oxygen jet gun, propelled himself into open space, and became the first American to conduct a spacewalk.
John Bisney and J.L. Pickering were just young boys at the time, but growing up during the space race imbued both men with a lifelong love for NASA's early missions. Bisney became a broadcast journalist who covered the space program for over 30 years at CNN and the Discovery Channel. Pickering became a space historian, who spent a lifetime collecting rare, behind-the-scenes photos from NASA's heyday.
The pair have curated a collection of these rare images with a detailed retelling of Gemini IV and the rest of the Mercury and Gemini missions in a new coffee table book released this month. I caught up with the two to chat about why they chose the images they did, what the missions meant to them, and what they meant to the country.
Bisney said the story of the early years are compelling to him because it's a reminder that in the first era of the space race, the US was falling behind. The Soviet Union had the first man in space. It conducted the first spacewalk. It launched the first two and three person crews, and the first woman in space.
"Those were really the years when the outcome of the space race was in some doubt. The Soviets were doing all these firsts and the United States was doing its best to keep up with them," Bisney told me. "It really wasn't until later in the Gemini program that it became apparent that the United States was starting to pull ahead, and maybe they are going to make it to the Moon first."
Pickering told me he was especially interested in sharing the behind-the-scenes photos. Many famous NASA photos from the early missions have become ubiquitous: they're in every textbook, on every webpage, in every news story, Pickering said.
"Those are fantastic pictures, that's why they get used over and over," he told me. "But it's satisfying to me to get some of those images out there and remind people that it wasn't just the astronauts involved in these flights. They wouldn't have gone anywhere if it wasn't for all the people on the ground putting this whole thing together."
While Pickering struggled to name a single favorite shot in the collection, Bisney picked out one from the Gemini VI mission, which achieved the first manned rendezvous with another spacecraft. In the photo, the crew is walking up to the pad for a launch attempt and shaking hands with the support crew on the way.
"To me that said so much: the launch team is there and they have this great relationship with the flight crew," Bisney said. "It also speaks to the intimacy of these first flights. It wasn't like there was a lot of security and fences. It was informal: just come out to the pad and say goodbye."