Untethered: Humanity’s first free flying astronaut, Bruce McCandless, passes away aged 80
The first person to conduct a free, untethered spacewalk, Bruce McCandless II, has passed away at the age of 80. McCandless was a naval aviator and the son of a U.S. Medal of Honor recipient who served as the CAPCOM when Neil Armstrong successfully placed humanity’s first footprints on the Moon and who helped redefine what it was believed astronauts can do.
The former U.S. Navy captain joined NASA’s Astronaut Corps in April of 1966 during the heady days of the space agency’s manned journey to the Moon. At 28, he was the youngest Group 5 astronaut tapped to train to fly to orbit. That group would come to be called the “Original Nineteen” by veteran astronaut and Moonwalker John W. Young.
His selection marked a turning point in terms of the types of individuals selected to be astronauts. Rather than have experience as test pilots, these new space flyers came from backgrounds pertaining to scientific research.
McCandless was chosen to be one of the astronauts working on the United States’ first space station, Skylab, where he served as backup pilot for the orbiting laboratory’s first crewed mission (along with Rusty Schweickart and Story Musgrave).
During the Skylab years, McCandless would serve as Capsule Communicator (CapCom) during Skylabs three and four.
In what would be a contributing factor to what could be considered the defining moment of his space flight career, McCandless worked on the development of the M-509 astronaut maneuvering unit experiment that was sent to Skylab.
While he might be best remembered for his legacy as a spacewalker, McCandless made a number of other contributions to space exploration. He worked on an array of NASA programs, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Solar Max mission, as well as the International Space Station.
McCandless flew to space twice on board NASA’s now retired shuttle orbiters on missions STS-41-B and STS-31.
Launched on Feb. 3, 1984, on the Space Shuttle Challenger, STS-41-B was the tenth shuttle flight (and Challenger’s fourth). It was on this mission that McCandless took the Manned Maneuvering Unit out away from the orbiter’s safety – twice. In doing so, he accumulated 12 hours and 12 minutes on EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity).
His next flight, STS-31, was conducted on the Space Shuttle Discovery and saw the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble has since gone on to revolutionize mankind’s understanding of the universe and continues to stream down breathtaking images of the cosmos. STS-31 was launched on April 24, 1990, with Hubble being deployed the following day. He and Kathryn Sullivan had donned spacesuits in case an EVA was required. When Discovery touched down at Edwards Air Force Base’s Runway 22 on April 29, it would mark the last time that McCandless would travel to space.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Bruce’s family,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot via a statement issued by the space agency. “He will always be known for his iconic photo flying the MMU.”
Lightfoot was among many to mourn the passing of the man who is the subject of perhaps one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century. Former NASA astronaut and SFI Technical Consultant Nicole P. Stott posted the following on her Twitter account: “Saddened by this world’s loss of Bruce McCandless.”
Video courtesy of NASA
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.