First NASA astronaut to fly untethered in space dies at 80

NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless became the first astronaut to maneuver about in space untethered, on Feb. 7, 1984, during the first "field" tryout of a nitrogen-propelled, hand-controlled backpack device called the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU). PUBLIC DOMAIN PHOTO

HOUSTON (AP) — NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless, the first person to fly freely and untethered in space, has died. He was 80.

He was famously photographed in 1984 flying with a hefty spacewalker’s jetpack, alone in the cosmic blackness above a blue Earth. He traveled more than 300 feet away from the space shuttle Challenger during the spacewalk.

“The iconic photo of Bruce soaring effortlessly in space has inspired generations of Americans to believe that there is no limit to the human potential,” Sen. John McCain said in a statement. The Arizona Republican and McCandless were classmates at the U.S. Naval Academy.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center said Friday that McCandless died Thursday in California. No cause of death was given.

McCandless said he wasn’t nervous about the historic spacewalk.

“I was grossly over-trained. I was just anxious to get out there and fly. I felt very comfortable ... It got so cold my teeth were chattering and I was shivering, but that was a very minor thing,” he told the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, in 2006.

During that flight, McCandless and fellow astronaut Robert L. Stewart pioneered the use of NASA’s backpack device that allowed astronauts walking in space to propel themselves from the shuttle. Stewart became the second person to fly untethered two hours after McCandless. ”I’d been told of the quiet vacuum you experience in space, but with three radio links saying, “How’s your oxygen holding out?” ‘’Stay away from the engines!” ‘’When’s my turn?” it wasn’t that peaceful,’ McCandless wrote in the Guardian in 2015.

But he also wrote: “It was a wonderful feeling, a mix of personal elation and professional pride: it had taken many years to get to that point.”

McCandless was later part of a 1990 shuttle crew.

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