Imagine, being in outer space with no secure connection to the mothership. A bit unnerving, perhaps? Too Hollywood for you?
Decades before George Clooney vanished into the galaxy in “Gravity” and Matt Damon took his chances in “The Martian,” Navy Captain Bruce McCandless II became the first person ever to fly untethered in outer space.
On this day in 1984, the astronaut from Long Beach relied on a rocket pack he helped designed himself to control his destination – and his destiny – as he orbited the earth at more than 17,000 miles an hour in concert with the space shuttle Challenger. More than 170 miles from earth, and straying 320 feet away from the shuttle, McCandless spent 90 minutes testing out the jet pack before returning to the ship. A photo of him detached in space is among NASA’s most famous.
There was great concern at mission control, where his wife, Bernice, watched and waited. McCandless wanted to ease any fears, as he wrote in 2015. “I wanted to say something similar to Neil [Armstrong] when he landed on the moon, so I said, ‘It may have been a small step for Neil, but it’s a heck of a big leap for me.’ That loosened the tension a bit.”
His efforts in designing the pack and testing it became vital to NASA’s ability to repair and maintain satellites as well as building and maintaining space stations. McCandless used hand controls to operate the jet pack, which NASA called a Manned Maneuvering Unit.
McCandless’ father, Rear Admiral Bruce McCandless, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for the naval battle of Guadalcanal, December 12-13, 1942.
Like his father, McCandless opted for a career in the Navy. He grew up in Long Beach and attended Wilson High School before going on to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis; later adding an engineering degree from Stanford.
McCandless was among the 19 astronauts chosen by NASA in 1966. He served as the Mission Control communicator for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moonwalk on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.
McCandless ultimately spent more than 300 hours in space. His untethered spacewalk happened during his first space shuttle mission. It was the fourth flight of the Challenger space shuttle. Two years later, the Challenger exploded after liftoff for its 10th mission, in January 1986, killing all seven crewmembers aboard.
McCandless died at 80 in 2017.