Weekly Space Image: Bruce McCandless II, The First ‘Human Satellite’, Drifts Unattached in History

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the first untethered spacewalk, a milestone achieved by NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless II during space shuttle mission STS-41-B on February 7, 1984. McCandless made history by becoming the first human to perform a spacewalk without a safety tether, venturing approximately 320 feet (98 meters) away from the space shuttle Challenger. This feat was made possible by the use of a hand-controlled backpack known as the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), which propelled McCandless using nitrogen gas thrusters. The MMU turned him into the first human satellite, orbiting Earth for 1 hour and 22 minutes.

The momentous event was captured by Robert “Hoot” Gibson, Challenger’s pilot, via a Hasselblad camera. Gibson’s images of McCandless, floating solo above the Earth, have become some of the most iconic visuals of the entire space shuttle program. Despite not being planned, Gibson ensured the quality of the photographs by taking multiple light-meter readings and checking the focus four times for each shot.

McCandless humorously referenced Neil Armstrong’s famous quote during his own historic moment, saying, “It may have been one small step for Neil, but it’s a heck of a big leap for me.” McCandless was no stranger to significant moments in space exploration, as he served as the voice of NASA’s Mission Control during the Apollo 11 and Apollo 14 missions.

McCandless’s second and final spaceflight took place in April 1990 during the STS-31 mission, during which the Hubble Space Telescope was deployed into Earth’s orbit from the space shuttle Discovery’s cargo bay. McCandless passed away in 2017 at the age of 80. His groundbreaking MMU is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The MMU was used during three missions in 1984 before being retired due to safety concerns.

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