Photos of a dummy named Starman casually taking a luxury car on a spin through space may have captivated Earthlings yesterday, but 34 years ago, a similarly surreal photo of an actual astronaut commanded attention.
On February 7, 1984, Bruce McCandless became the first human to float free from any earthly anchor when he stepped out of the space shuttle Challenger and flew away from the ship. In a still-startling NASA image from that mission, untethered McCandless hangs 320 feet from Challenger, suspended above our impossibly blue planet and appearing paradoxically powerful and fragile against the yawning vastness of the cosmos.
McCandless, who died on December 21, 2017, had a long and storied history in NASA’s space program. Before his famous spacewalks, he was mission control communicator during 1969’s Apollo 11 moonwalk. That experience left him famously grumpy with Neil Armstrong for not revealing ahead of time what Armstrong planned to say when his boots first hit moon dust. He later helped deploy the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit from the space shuttle Discovery in 1990.
But McCandless’s most memorable spacewalks, immortalized by a photo taken later during the mission, took place on his very first spaceflight. He’d been asked to test a new 300-pound Manned Maneuvering Unit, or MMU, which is basically a nitrogen-powered jetpack that allows astronauts to twist and turn through space as George Clooney’s character did in the movie Gravity. But this was no feature film, and to say that people were nervous about an unrecoverable malfunction is no overstatement.
So, McCandless decided to crack an inside space joke as he began talking with mission control in Houston.
“I think I can assert that my comment—that it may have been one small step for Neil, but it’s one heckuva of a big leap for me—was a) consciously thought out, b) a form of revenge for Neil not sharing his thoughts on stepping on the moon with me, and c) a way to say that things are going OK, don’t worry about it,” McCandless said. “It set the right tone, and on we went.”
Here, on the anniversary of his first untethered spacewalk, are McCandless’s thoughts about that photo, recorded during his last interview with National Geographic in July.
What do you think of when you see yourself in that photo?
I had my sun visor down, in reality, for no particular reason other than keeping the sun out of my eyes, and so it could be just about anybody in there. And I think that’s part of the attraction. I guess it’s fair to say I’ve been amazed by the number of different folks who’ve come up to me and said, Hey, I have your picture in my bedroom. It’s really become iconic of the space program, and in some ways, it seems to represent the embodiment of humanity’s desire to be free from gravity and to be able to fly around in the cosmos.
I know a million people have asked you this, but …
What was it like out there? The single thing that disturbed me the most was when I got away from the shuttle, I got extremely cold. Shivering, teeth chattering. The reason for that is that the H, or hot, position on the life support system isn’t really hot. It’s just sort of minimal cooling, and the suit was designed to keep an astronaut cool and comfortable in a warm environment when working hard. [On this untethered walk], you’re really not doing any significant labor. Flying the MMU is like moving your fingertips. You’re not generating a significant amount of metabolic heat, and the remedy for that is just to turn the cooling system off completely.
Was it fun being out there anyway?
It was fun. But I tell you, I thought it would be sort of ethereal in terms of quietness, and I was wrong. I had radio communications, and there were three different people talking to me … it was anything but peaceful and quiet.
You’ve been in space twice. Is it true that seeing Earth from space can alter an astronaut’s perception of the planet?
As a blanket statement, I believe I’m OK in saying that just about everyone who has flown in space and looked down on the Earth has altered their perception of it. And the prevailing feeling seems to be that when we look down from space, we really can’t see the political subdivisions, and we wonder, why us—meaning everybody that’s on spaceship Earth—why we can’t learn to work with each other and get along.
How about when you were free-floating in space? Were you more aware of the planet below you?
With regard to my flying in the MMU, I’ve gotta be honest with you, I did not look down very much. My frame of reference was the space shuttle Challenger, and I oriented myself with respect to Challenger, like one airplane flying in formation with another. At one point, I did look down just to see if I could recognize anything, and by the luck of the draw or by chance, we happened to be passing over Florida. There is no feature on Earth that resembles the peninsula of Florida—its distinctive shape, Lake Okeechobee—so it was immediately and unequivocally recognizable. From there, we blew down along the Bahamas and across the South Atlantic and came ashore again over Namibia.
Do you think we’ll ever go back to the moon, or to Mars?
Transportation from the Earth’s surface is being commercialized, and I think that’s a good thing. We are on the verge of starting commercial crew launch, but I think it is the role of the government to pioneer. George Bush, on July 20, 1989—with me in the audience and thousands of others—pledged to go back to the moon and on to Mars in 30 years; 2019 is 30 years from then. I’m sure we’re not going to be headed to Mars by then.
[NASA’s next-generation space capsule] Orion is gearing up and should eventually take us to the moons of Mars. They’re probably the first step, because they are a lot easier to get to and from there, you can control things on the surface with almost zero time delay. Plus, when you land people on Mars, you already need to have a good idea of whether there’s life on Mars. With no offense intended, people are dirty.