1st astronaut to free-float in space dies at 80
McCandless was 80 when he died Thursday. NASA confirmed his passing via Twitter Friday, sharing multiple iconic photos of him free-floating in space during the 1984 STS-41-B mission. The retired US Navy captain became a NASA astronaut in April 1966.
In the famous 1984 photo, McCandless had strapped on the MMU (manned maneuvering unit) which he himself helped develop. The 300-pound jet-powered backpack took him about 300 feet away from the Space Shuttle Challenger, traveling 1 foot per second in relation to the Challenger, but 18,000 miles per hour relative to Earth, NPR reported.
More than 30 years after that mission, McCandless related to NPR what he told the NASA control center as he free-floated: “‘It may have been one small step for Neil. But it's a heckuva big leap for me.’”
Referring to late NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, McCandless was probably thinking back to when he served as the voice between the Apollo 11 crew and mission control in 1969. At the time, McCandless told Armstrong, “There are a lot of us down here that would be willing to come along.”
McCandless’s quip 15 years later caused “laughter [that] literally brought down the house,” he told NPR, citing his wife who was at mission control at the time.
“I wanted to loosen things up a little,” he added.
Mission control didn’t seem overly tense, however, as a voice message was transmitted to McCandless, echoing his own words to Armstrong a decade-and-a-half beforehand.
“You have a lot of envious people watching you. Looks like you're having a lot of fun up there,” they said.
McCandless also said he didn’t feel nervous during his untethered spacewalk.
“I got quite cold. My teeth were chattering. I was shivering,” he said.
McCandless purposefully chose to keep his face hidden in the historic photo.
“I had the gold sun visor down. So that in principle, people could imagine themselves inside of there instead of me,” he told NPR. He also said, “I like to encourage folks to look at that and say, ‘Well, I can do better than that.’”