Into the Black: Bruce McCandless Floats Free in Space, 1984

American astronaut Bruce McCandless photographed during the first "untethered space walk" in human history, Feb. 7, 1984.
NASA
American astronaut Bruce McCandless photographed during the first "untethered space walk" in human history, Feb. 7, 1984. [NOTE: View in "Full Screen" mode; see button at right.]
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'80s

On Feb. 7, 1984, “astronaut Bruce McCandless ventured further away from the confines and safety of his ship than any previous astronaut had ever been,” notes the caption to the above photo on NASA.gov. “This space first was made possible by a nitrogen jet-propelled backpack, previously known at NASA as the Manned Maneuvering Unit or MMU. After a series of test maneuvers inside and above [Space Shuttle] Challenger‘s payload bay, McCandless went ‘free flying’ to a distance of 320 feet away from the orbiter.”

Thirty years later, the photographs of McCandless’ breathtaking, first-ever untethered space walk during the fourth Challenger mission still stun. (McCandless was joined on his historic walk by Col. Robert L. Stewart, but it is the stirring photos of McCandless—made by Challenger‘s pilot, Robert “Hoot” Gibson—that have endured.)

McCandless was a Navy aviator in the early 1960s—he graduated second in the Naval Academy’s class of 1958, earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering—and in 1966 was one of 19 fliers selected by NASA for astronaut training. He was instrumental in designing and testing the MMU jet pack, and for 18 years before the Challenger mission that would, in a sense, immortalize him, McCandless played a role in some of NASA’s greatest triumphs: he was, for example, the Capsule Communicator, or CAPCOM, during the Apollo 11 mission.

As the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11′s flight to the moon draws near, it’s only right that we take a minute to celebrate another astonishing, hair-raising NASA first. Namely, that moment, 15 years after Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, when McCandless briefly broke free, at-once minuscule and momentous—the human form sharply etched and intrepid against the limitless, indifferent void.

On Feb. 12, 1984, American astronaut Bruce McCandless engaged in the first "untethered space walk" in history, venturing further away from the confines and safety of his ship than any astronaut had ever been.

NASA

Astronaut Bruce McCandless photographed during the first "untethered space walk" in history, Feb. 1984.

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