The Patient Astronaut

Bruce McCandless waited almost two decades for his first space flight.

Bruce McCandless II during a panel discussion marking the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2015. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)
Air & Space Magazine

Most of us know Bruce McCandless II by the famous photograph taken by fellow astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson as McCandless tested the Manned Maneuvering Unit jetpack that propelled him 300 feet away from the space shuttle in 1984. His son, Bruce McCandless III, has written a book that fills in the picture of his father’s life before and after that iconic image was taken. Wonders All Around documents the setbacks and triumphs of his father’s career, which began with his service as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot. The older McCandless joined NASA in 1966 but did not travel to space until 1984, when he flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger. McCandless III spoke with Air & Space senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in October.

Air & Space: Why did you decide to write this book?

McCandless III: In the last year of his life, my father decided he would write a memoir. Unfortunately, he had some physical problems that prevented him from making much progress. So I decided to write the story for him. Granted, it’s not as technical a story as he would have written, but I think it’s a little more fun.

Your father could have had an active career as a U.S. Navy pilot—what drew him to become an astronaut?

Partly as a result of reading works like Willy Ley’s The Conquest of Space and other, less demanding fare like the Buck Rogers comic strips, my father decided he wanted to walk on the moon when he was very young (10, according to him; 3, according to his mother). He always looked at flying fighter aircraft as a step toward a goal rather than as an end in itself.

How did your father feel when he wasn’t selected for Apollo or Skylab?

As I discuss in the book, he was bitterly disappointed. He joined NASA in 1966 as a bit of a boy wonder—brilliant and bookish—the youngest man in his class and indeed the youngest astronaut, period, for a time. He won the plum assignment of acting as capcom for the Apollo 11 astronauts when they walked on the moon. And then something went wrong: He ran afoul of the powers that be and found himself in a sort of action-hero limbo, a man without a mission, the Moonlight Graham of the astronaut corps.

Was there an astronaut your father admired?

The astronaut corps has always been an amazing collection of talent, and my dad admired all of his colleagues. My mom was friends with Susy Young [wife of John Young] and Pat Musgrave [wife of Story Musgrave], and she and my dad were particularly fond of the Lousmas, the Brands, and the McNairs. I think Ron McNair sort of blew my dad’s mind—an astrophysicist with a black belt in karate who could play a mean saxophone, a guy with a grin so infectious he could make a manikin smile. But my father’s role model, ultimately, was Neil Armstrong. An engineer and a bit of a nerd but nevertheless cool and competent, blessed by fate and the gods of rocketry, Armstrong was everything he wanted to be. When Neil died, my dad wrote an elegy about him that ended up being published in a Denver newspaper. We won’t see people like him again.

Did growing up the son of an astronaut ever work to your advantage?

Not that I can tell. Bruce McCandless II didn’t get a mission for 18 years after he joined NASA. No one knew who he was until the famous untethered jetpack flight in 1984, at which point I was in graduate school in England. I guess it did help me get a date one time, now that I think about it, but the percentage of people who are impressed by aerospace technology is even lower in the UK than here. Now if he’d been a midfielder for Chelsea, that might have opened some doors.

While testing the MMU in space, do you think your father experienced fear?

Great question. He always said he didn’t. I suspect that this was at least in part because he spent years of his life helping to design and test the MMU, and to admit to fear would in effect have been to question his own work. Nevertheless, plans for his test flight called for him to back out from the orbiter, then turn around so that he was facing away from the spacecraft. Watch the video. You’ll notice he never quite got around to letting Challenger out of his sight. Is that fear? Or just common sense? I can’t decide.

What could have gone wrong during your father’s test of the MMU?

My dad and his colleagues, including Ed Whitsett and Lou Ramon at NASA and Bill Bollendonk at Martin Marietta, had designed the MMU with redundant systems to guard against any mechanical failures. But one recalls that the Titanic was “unsinkable” and that everyone thought it was highly unlikely that a piece of falling insulation could damage the orbiter Columbia so significantly as to make it unsafe for reentry. Bad things happen. My father could have passed out after throttling forward and, unconscious, started moving away from both Earth and the shuttle. Vance Brand and Hoot Gibson would then have had the responsibility of chasing him down with the orbiter. Those guys were the best, and it probably would have worked. But then again, who knows? I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, as he would have, that my dad’s colleague Bob Stewart was on the same flight, and did essentially the same tests on the MMU that my father did. They were taking the same risks.

When you see the famous photo of your father in the MMU, what are you thinking?

First of all, I’m thinking Hoot Gibson was a heck of a photographer. But aside from that, seeing “The Photo” puts a smile on my face. My dad’s plans didn’t always work out. He spent an awful lot of years feeling like a washout. But he hung in there, got his shot at a spaceflight, and ended up on a million refrigerators. I get a kick out of that.

Anything you’d like to add?

Yes, a couple of things. First, people sometimes characterize the MMU as a technological dead end. That’s not true. A streamlined, less powerful version of the MMU, its lineal descendant, called SAFER (for “Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue”), is used by all astronauts when performing spacewalks outside the International Space Station. Second, don’t forget about Hubble! In the late 1980s, Bruce McCandless II and his fellow astronaut Kathy Sullivan spent a lot of time with the brainiacs at Lockheed, engineering the space telescope to ensure that it could be repaired and maintained while in orbit. Their work on the design and deployment of Hubble has helped us to enjoy 31 years of spectacular science and imagery.

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