A Tale of Houston and Free Flying Through Space

Bruce McCandless II on his amazing untethered space flight.
Bruce McCandless II on his amazing untethered space flight. Picture by Nasa
Bruce McCandless II is the most famous man you probably don’t recognize despite having seen him thousands of times. That’s him above in one of the most iconic photographs ever taken during the space age. In the futuristic year of 1984, he did what no one ever had when he stepped completely free of the Space Shuttle Challenger and flew into the void untethered. He returned safely thanks to a jetpack that he was partially responsible for creating.

Getting there wasn’t easy, either for humanity as a whole or McCandless personally. His strange tale as an astronaut is chronicled in a new book out this week by his son, Bruce McCandless III, called Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space.

Houston Press readers may recognize McCandless III as an excellent writer of horror novels like Sour Lake. The author turns out to be just as good at detailing the weird journey of his family’s lineage from the Wild West to World War II to outer space. The McCandless family first achieved fame in 1861 when David McCandless was gunned down (possibly murdered unjustly) by the legendary “Wild” Bill Hickok. McCandless III’s grandfather, also named Bruce, was a legend as well. He suddenly rose to the command of the U.S.S. San Francisco due to casualties in the middle of the First Battle of the Guadalcanal — what historians have described as a cauldron of fire that remains one of the most intense naval encounters ever.

From those fiery beginnings came McCandless II, a quiet but driven man who started out life as a Navy pilot but who pursued the sciences as he dreamed of walking on the moon. Wonders All Around is not just the story of one man’s path from Houston to the Great Nothing, it’s also a kid’s eye view of the space program. McCandless II was already famous before he took his walk, though for a less than stellar reason. He was the last of the Apollo astronauts who had never been on a mission and was often referred to as the “forgotten” astronaut.

McCandless III’s look at how the space program evolved is both inspiring and sad. He shows how Kennedy’s Dream propelled human achievement beyond the Earth thanks to government funding and a desire to beat the Soviets to the moon. However, as the success of the moon landing became routine, public interest in funding space endeavors dwindled until NASA had to basically bill itself as a commercial satellite delivery system. It was no longer enough to probe the stars for all mankind. Now, space had to be profitable, a legacy that haunts us today as billionaires claim the domain of space for themselves.

This doldrum of advancement is where McCandless II found himself, but he was such a driven man that he finally won his place in history. It was a combination of perseverance and his work on the Manned Maneuvering Unit, or MMU, that advanced our place in the stars. The details get a little overly techy in the book, but in the end his perfection of the jetpack allowed him a freedom of movement unheard of for mankind before.

The book is a joy to read thanks largely to McCandless III’s ability to turn even a mundane car trip into an existential rumination on our place in the world. His turns of phrase are immensely memorable, my favorite being when he described living outside the Johnson Space Center and looking up at the sky: "God was up there, and if He wasn’t, then at least the satellites were." Wonders All Around is also largely a Houston tale, with McCandless III describing what it was like to grow up in the insular neighborhood around NASA with the other children of astronauts and mission controllers. It was a weird place where everyone’s dad was a hero, everyone’s mom was worried they might be a widow, and every family lived on a government salary in a combination of prosperity and fixed income.

"God was up there, and if He wasn’t, then at least the satellites were." — Bruce McCandless III remembering looking up at the sky as a child while living outside the Johnson Space Center

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The McCandless family took it all in stride and kept their lives full of adventures. McCandless III recalls how his dad would call up the Houston Zoo before jetting off to train as an astronaut in places like Iceland to ask them what animals they might need. The Zoo would literally give him a list, and McCandless II would simply wander away from camp and come back with wild specimens in his duffle bag to donate. I was not aware that this was a thing that a person could do, but then again no one knew if untethered flight was possible either until McCandless II just went and did it.

Wonders All Around is part history, part science adventure, part memoir of a boy and part history of mankind’s greatest achievements so far. To read it is to have hope again in the face of impossible odds and know that humans can dare greatly provided they put in the work. It’s a marvelous book about a marvelous time when impossible things were someone's 9-to-5.

Wonders All Around is available now.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner