Fifty years ago today, astronaut Edward White pushed out from the Gemini 4 space capsule to become the first American to walk in space.

The event, at a time when space travel was in its infancy, riveted the attention of the world, with millions following it on television 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.

“American Astronaut Edward White turned his planned space walk into a minor marathon,” reported The Washington Post’s Howard Simons, “causing his co-Astronaut and ground-based officials to plead, cajole and finally order him back into the Gemini space capsule.”

For 23 minutes, twice the planned time, White was tethered to the Gemini 4, 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.”

At one point, White, who was relying on a 25-foot tether to maneuver himself after his oxygen-jet gun ran out of fuel, accidentally bumped the spacecraft. “You smeared up my windshield, you dirty dog,” McDivitt cracked. “You see how it’s all smeared up there?”

Throughout the mission White couldn’t help but expressing 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,” White said.

White was a photo buff, as his wife, Patricia White, points out. And the images from the mission became famous. Ben Cosgrove described his feelings in Life years later as he viewed them: “There is a kind of riveting unease in the acknowledgment that the white-suited figure in the photos willingly left the relative safety of a cramped, 4-ton sardine can in order to float in space a speck in the cosmos…”

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:

McDivitt: They want you to get back in now.

White (laughing): I’m not coming in . . . This is fun.

McDivitt: Come on.

WhiteHate 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.

Tragically, White died on January 27, 1967, along with Virgil I. Grissom and Roger B. Chafee, during pre-launch testing for the first manned Apollo mission at Cape Canaveral.

More on Space: