NASA Astronaut Bruce McCandless, First to Fly Untethered in Space, Dies Aged 80

NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless, the first person to fly freely and untethered in space, has died aged 80.

He was famously photographed in 1984 flying with a hefty spacewalker’s jetpack, alone in the cosmic blackness above a blue Earth. He travelled more than 90 metres away from the space shuttle Challenger during the spacewalk.

“The iconic photo of Bruce soaring effortlessly in space has inspired generations of Americans to believe that there is no limit to the human potential,” US senator John McCain said in a statement.

The Arizona Republican and Mr McCandless were classmates at the US Naval Academy.

NASA’s Johnson Space Centre said Mr McCandless died Thursday (local time) in California. No cause of death was given.

In 2006, Mr McCandless reflected on the spacewalk, saying he wasn’t nervous about the historic event.

“I was grossly over-trained. I was just anxious to get out there and fly. I felt very comfortable,” he told the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado.

“It got so cold my teeth were chattering and I was shivering, but that was a very minor thing.”

Astronaut Bruce McCandless II poses for the camera wearing his space suit with his helmet off in front of an American flag

During that flight, Mr McCandless and fellow astronaut Robert L Stewart pioneered the use of NASA’s backpack device that allowed astronauts walking in space to propel themselves from the shuttle. Mr Stewart became the second person to fly untethered two hours after Mr McCandless.

“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!’ ‘when’s my turn?’, it wasn’t that peaceful,” Mr McCandless wrote in the Guardian in 2015.

But he also wrote: “It was a wonderful feeling, a mix of personal elation and professional pride: it had taken many years to get to that point.”

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We’re saddened by the loss of retired astronaut Bruce McCandless II. Most known for being the 1st human to free-float on a shuttle spacewalk, he also served as the Apollo 11 moonwalkers’ link to mission control and helped launch @NASAHubble 

Mr McCandless was later part of the 1990 shuttle crew that delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit. He also served as the Mission Control capsule communicator in Houston as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969.

During his spacewalk, “my wife was at mission control, and there was quite a bit of apprehension,” Mr McCandless wrote.

“I wanted to say something similar to Neil 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.”

Born in Boston, Mr McCandless graduated from Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Long Beach, California. He graduated from the Naval Academy and earned master’s degrees in electrical engineering and business administration.

He was a naval aviator who participated in the Cuban blockade in the 1962 missile crisis. Mr McCandless was selected for astronaut training during the Gemini program, and he was a backup pilot for the first manned Skylab mission in 1973.

“Bruce served his country with humility and dignity, and encouraged all of us to reach new heights,” Senator McCain said.

Survivors include his wife, Ellen Shields McCandless of Conifer, Colorado, two children and two grandchildren.