Bruce McCandless, the Astronaut in the Iconic Photo

By Robert Mark on January 18th, 2018

Bruce McCandless, the Astronaut In the Iconic Photo, by Micah Engber

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When you think about the first space walk maybe you think about Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov who in March 1965 was the first man to ever leave the relative safety of a space capsule. Maybe it’s Ed White you think of, who in June 1965 opened the hatch of Gemini 4 and was the first American to walk in space.

The name Gene Cernan may come to mind. He flew Gemini 9A in June of 1966 and spent over two hours on an EVA. That EVA almost killed him due to our lack of understanding of the physical exertion it took to work in space, and the cooling system in his space suit not being able to keep up with it.

Then there’s Buzz Aldrin, sure, the second man on the moon, but actually the first man to successfully conduct a mission while on a space walk. In November 1966, on Gemini 12, the final Gemini mission, Buzz Aldrin conducted 3 EVAs that totaled more than five hours in space. Buzz Aldrin was the man that really taught us how to work in space.

EVAs seem rather common place today. Even though they’re always incredibly dangerous, always a challenge, and always very closely monitored both from on board the space craft and from the ground; the general public doesn’t think of EVA’s as anything special. In some ways that’s sad. It’s also sad that we also don’t think of the man that paved the way for the modern spacewalk, probably don’t know his name, and certainly don’t have any idea that he passed away on December 21 of 2017.

In February 1984, at the age of 39, Bruce McCandless was the first person to ever truly walk in space, and by truly, I mean untethered. You see, those four space walks I mentioned before, while all incredible feats of both courage and science, all had one thing in common, those men were tethered to their spacecraft, connected by an umbilical cord. Although in an emergency, none of them could be safely pulled back into their spacecraft by the tether, they couldn’t just go floating off in space.  On the other hand, in February 1984, Bruce McCandless flew in space, no strings attached; he piloted himself in what we called the MMU, the Manned Maneuvering Unit.

As the youngest member of Astronaut Group 5, at the age of 28, Bruce McCandless joined NASA in 1966. Although a pilot he was not a trained test pilot and was effectively treated as a “scientist-astronaut”. You see Chief Astronaut Deke Slayton, along with other NASA managers of the time, only wanted experienced test pilots as crew. Because of that Bruce McCandless was not put into flight rotation for some time.

Bruce McCandliss (NASA photo)

He served as CAPCOM for Apollo 11 and the first ever lunar EVA by Neil Armstrong. He was also CAPCOM for Apollo 14, and Skylab 3 and 4. Although his first flight assignment was as back-up crew for the first Skylab mission his first spaceflight didn’t come until STS-41-B in 1984 when he flew Space Shuttle Challenger. But what a flight that was!

You see it was Bruce McCandless’s scientific work as co-investigator on the M-509 astronaut maneuvering unit experiment on Skylab that led to his assignment to STS-41-B. It was that Challenger mission that brought him into space to test the Manned Maneuvering Unit, the MMU that allowed him to become the first person to ever leave a spacecraft untethered.

Bruce McCandless became what we always imagined in science fiction, he was his own little space craft hovering around the ship, flying under his own power in the MMU he developed as he flew untethered as far as 320 feet, that’s 98 meters, away from Challenger.

So as I’ve said, you may not know the name Bruce McCandless but my guess is you’ve seen him. That iconic NASA photo of an astronaut flying free above the earth, that’s Bruce McCandless.

He may not have come to NASA as a test pilot but he sure talked like one. He had said that when he made that iconic space walk his “wife was at mission control, and there was quite a bit of apprehension.” Wanting to break the tension he first thought of what Neil Armstrong said when he first stepped foot on the moon, that’s when Bruce McCandless said, and I quote, “It may have been a small step for Neil, but it’s a heck of a big leap for me”.

When asked what it was like to fly untethered in space he said, quote:

“I’d been told of the quiet vacuum you experience in space, but with three radio links saying, ‘How’s your oxygen holding out?’, ‘Stay away from the engines!’ and ‘When’s my turn?’, it wasn’t that peaceful,”

Bruce McCandless left us at the age of 80, on December 21, 2017. Another NASA hero, probably unknown to most of us, is gone from this world.

So may God bless Bruce McCandless who is now eternally untethered. Let’s hope this, his final untethered flight is a bit more peaceful than his first.

From Portland Maine, this is your Maine Man, Micah

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