Monday, June 8, 2009

Happy birthday, Bruce McCandless

Astronaut Bruce McCandless II turned 72 on June 8.

McCandless, whose father was a highly-decorated hero in World War II, went to the US Naval Academy. He graduated in 1958, in the same class as John McCain. He flew fighters off of the USS Forrestal and the USS Enterprise, including flights from the latter during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

McCandless was one of the "Original 19", the third group of astronauts selected by NASA, in 1966. He is sometimes called "the first human to speak to a person on another planet," because he was the CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator) during the Apollo 11 moonwalk, when Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the Moon. However, it would be 18 years from his selection as an astronaut before McCandless would fly into space himself.

McCandless's big moment came in February 1984, when McCandless flew as a Payload Specialist in Challenger on STS-41B. McCandless flew the first tests of the Manned Maneuvering Unit, which he had helped develop, dating from a prototype that flew inside Skylab. Donning the MMU and releasing his tethers, McCandless became the first human being to fly free from a spacecraft in orbit. He flew several hundred feet away from Challenger and spent four hours as a "human satellite." The photo of him floating free is one of the iconic images of the Space Program.

I enjoyed spending some quiet moments with McCandless during Spacefest in February. He was a quiet and unassuming man yet extremely friendly and eager to discuss his experiences. I asked him about his extraordinary patience, to have waited so long before getting his first flight. He said he had been keeping plenty busy during the intervening years, developing the MMU and providing astronaut input into the development of several important technologies that would come of age in the Shuttle program. He knew that his time would come, so he kept with the program.

All of his friends in the space community wish him a very happy birthday!

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