Bruce McCandless II
Bruce McCandless II
  • June 8, 1937 - December 21, 2017
  • Conifer, Maryland

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On December 21, 2017 Bruce McCandless II

In 1984 the astronaut Bruce McCandless, who has died aged 80, took the world's breath away by becoming the first person to make an untethered spacewalk. Using a backpack equipped with nitrogen thrusters to move himself around, McCandless floated free in the void from the space shuttle Challenger for around four hours before returning to his colleagues inside. The main aim of the nine-day mission had been to release two communications satellites, and the spacewalk, while scientifically relevant, was really just icing on the cake. Nevertheless it was a vision of the ultimate, triumphant existentialist.

McCandless found the untethered exercise highly exhilarating. "It was a wonderful feeling, a mix of personal elation and professional pride," he said. "It had taken many years to get to that point. Several people were sceptical it would work, and with 300 hours of flying practice, I was over-trained. My wife was at Mission Control and there was quite a bit of apprehension. I wanted to say something similar to Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon, so I said, 'It might have been a small step for Neil, but it's a heck of a big leap for me.' That loosened the tension a bit."

From the time of Skylab - the first US space station in the 1970s - McCandless had been involved in developing the backpack, known as the Manned Maneuvering Unit, that had allowed him to make his spacewalk. Once outside the space shuttle he was travelling at 18,000mph, but since his speed was coordinated with that of the craft he was almost oblivious to the effect. Later on in the mission Robert L Stewart became the second astronaut to use the MMU, and the party returned to Earth following eight days in orbit. The MMU was used again on other missions, but two years later the space shuttle Challenger and seven crew members were lost when it exploded less than two minutes into its tenth flight. Subsequently the MMU was judged too risky for further use, although it had played no part in the tragedy.

McCandless was born in Boston, Massachusetts, into a naval family, the son of Bruce senior, a rear-admiral honoured after the Battle of Guadacanal in 1942, and his wife, Sue (nee Bradley). His paternal and maternal grandfathers were also decorated naval officers. His family settled in Long Beach, California, and McCandless was educated at the local Woodrow Wilson high school, which he left in 1954.

Then came the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, from which he took a bachelor of science degree - and a commission - four years later. The graduates that year also included the Vietnam war flier, prisoner of war, senator and presidential candidate John McCain.

By 1960, training at the naval air stations in Pensacola, Florida and Kingsville Texas had culminated in McCandless qualifying as a US Navy pilot. After experience with the supersonic Douglas F4D-1 Skyray fighter plane, he spent two years with Fighter Squadron 102, flying Skyrays and McDonnell-Douglas F-4B Phantoms from the Forrestal, one of the United States's first super-carriers, and the Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered carrier.

McCandless had been in his last year at Annapolis when, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. In 1961, while McCandless was flying Skyrays, Yuri Gagarin was becoming the world's first spaceman, and in 1962 President Kennedy announced the race for the moon.

In 1965 McCandless, still in the US Navy, took an MSc from California's Stanford University in electrical engineering and in 1966 he became the youngest of 19 men who comprised Nasa's Astronaut Group Five, around half of whom flew to the moon while the rest manned the Skylab and Shuttle projects. By 1969 he was a mission control communicator during the first moon landing, a role he repeated for the Apollo 14 landing. But within two years the Apollo programme and moon landings had faded into history, which left him working around the Skylab and shuttle programmes.

After his first Challenger mission and untethered spacewalk, McCandless's second, and final, venture into space took place six years later in 1990, when he joined the five-day 35th mission of the space shuttle program on Discovery, which launched the Hubble space telescope into orbit around the Earth. Altogether he spent 13 days in space.

In 1987 McCandless had gained a master's degree in business administration from the University of Houston-Clear Lake, and when he eventually left Nasa he was employed in Colorado by Lockheed Martin Space Systems. He received many honours including, in 1988, the Legion of Merit.

He was married for 53 years to Bernice (nee Doyle), who died in 2014. He is survived by his second wife, Ellen (nee Shields), two children from his first marriage, Bruce and Tracy, two grandchildren, and a brother and two sisters.

The family will receive friends at the John M. Taylor Funeral Home, 147 Duke of Gloucester Street Annapolis, MD 21401 on Monday January 15, 2018 from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 PM. A Funeral Service will be held in the United States Naval Academy Main Chapel on Tuesday January 16, 2018 at 10 AM. Interment in United States Naval Academy Cemetery.

A reception will follow services at the Naval Academy Officers Club. If you plan on attending please call Mrs. McCandless at 1-720-254-2281.