In the Age of Spaceplanes

Stories from the shuttle astronauts, in their own words.


Hoot Gibson: NASA Photo by Hooter


By the time we came to the first tests of the Manned Maneuvering Unit jetpack on 41-B, we felt positively snakebit. We had already on this flight stranded two commercial satellites in worthless orbits after their onboard rockets failed, and a balloon target we were going to use for rendezvous tests had blown up. Now we get to the MMU, and it couldn’t have gone better. Bruce McCandless first did a couple of brief test flights in the cargo bay, staying very close in case anything should go wrong. As we were approaching sunrise on one of our daylight passes, he was cleared to make the translation out to 300 feet from the shuttle. He started floating away, and I picked up the Hasselblad and thought, “I don’t believe the image I am seeing out of this camera.” The horizon was right there, and Bruce appeared at about a 30-degree angle because we in Challenger were 30 degrees from the vertical.

I started shooting, and I got very, very serious about these photos, because I thought to myself, “If I don’t mess this up I’m going to get an Aviation Week magazine cover out of this.” I must have taken three light ratings for every photo that I shot, and tweaked the focus six times for every time I squeezed the button. I shot a whole series of photographs of the MMU, and, sure enough, they made two Aviation Week covers. I’ve been very proud of those photos, because they have become some of the most used NASA photographs of all time. You see them everywhere, including the subscription cards inside Air & Space magazine. They never have my name on them. It never says, “NASA photo by Hooter.” But I know who shot it.

Pictured: Bruce McCandless test drives the Manned Maneuvering Unit, Mission STS-41B, 1984.

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