Bruce McCandless II was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 8, 1937, and attended high school in Long Beach, California. After graduating from high school, he went on to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1958 with a bachelor of science degree.
Following his graduation from the Naval Academy (second in a class of 900), McCandless learned to pilot aircraft at the Naval Aviation Training Command based in Pensacola, Florida, and Kingsville, Texas. He received his Navy aviator wings in 1960 and went on to Key West, Florida, where he underwent aircraft carrier landing training flying F-6A Skyray aircraft.
Next McCandless was assigned to the 102nd Fighter Squadron flying Skyrays and F-4B Phantom II aircraft from the USS Forrestal and the USS Enterprise aircraft carriers. The latter ship participated in the United States naval blockade of Cuba in the 1960s while McCandless was serving on her.
In 1964, McCandless served as an instrument flight instructor in the 43rd Attack Squadron, based at Apollo Soucek Field at Oceana, Virginia’s Naval Air Station. McCandless continued his education at Stanford University in Stanford, California, through the Naval Reserve Officer’s Training Corps Unit. There, in 1965, he earned a master of science degree in electrical engineering.
During his time as a Navy aviator, McCandless became an expert pilot, gaining proficiency on almost a dozen aircraft, including jets and helicopters. He joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut corps in 1966, during the height of the space race in which the United States and the Soviet Union competed to be the first to send humans to the moon. In 1971, McCandless served on the support crew for Apollo 14, the third mission to touch down on the surface of the moon, and two years later served on the backup crew of the United State’s first mission to its first space station, Skylab. Also during this time, McCandless helped to develop the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), which he was later to test fly on a space shuttle mission.
Eighteen years passed between the time McCandless became a member of the astronaut corps and his first flight into space. He was described by his fellow astronauts as something of a loner and appeared to be unwilling to engage in the competitive politics that many saw as a necessity for getting assigned to space missions.
Finally, after 18 years of waiting, McCandless got his chance to fly into space. He did so by serving as mission specialist on the STS-41B space shuttle mission, which flew February 3 to 11, 1984. He was later assigned to a second space mission, STS-31, which flew April 24 to 29, 1990.
The space shuttle Challenger lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 3, 1984. This was the tenth space shuttle mission flown. The main tasks for this mission were the deployment of two communications satellites and to conduct the maiden flight of the MMU. McCandless accomplished this last task, flying each of the mission’s two MMUs for the first time, to become the world’s first free-flying spacewalker, in effect becoming an independent satellite of the earth. Helping him in this endeavor, and using the MMUs himself, was fellow astronaut Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Stewart of the United States Army.
To fly independently of the space shuttle, McCandless and Stewart first cycled through the shuttle’s airlock and made their way out into the spacecraft’s payload bay. There, McCandless attached the MMU, essentially a jetpack, to his spacesuit. Next, he disengaged the MMU from its berth in the payload bay, and became, as he was quoted by Thomas O’Toole in the Washington Post as saying, “the smallest spaceship in history.” Flying alongside the shuttle, he circled the globe at 17,500 miles per hour at an altitude of 150 miles.
After first putting the MMU through its paces in the shuttle’s payload bay, McCandless got the go-ahead from mission commander Vance Brand, watching through the shuttle’s windows, to take the MMU 150 feet out into space. After completing that maneuver, McCandless headed back to the shuttle, before getting the go-head to fly 300 feet from the shuttle. As he did so, he compared the sensation to flying a helicopter at 25 times the speed of sound. After returning to the shuttle’s payload bay, McCandless practiced docking the MMU to docking adaptors mounted on the payload bay walls. This was to simulate similar maneuvers that would take place when docking with satellites for future repair missions. Following McCandless’s lead, Stewart conducted his own MMU flight tests using the same MMU. These tests were equally successful, and the two headed back inside the shuttle.
In 1990, McCandless flew on another historic shuttle flight when the shuttle Discovery lifted off on shuttle mission STS-31 on April 24. This mission launched the Hubble Space Telescope, the pioneering orbiting observatory that subsequently returned the clearest images of the most distant objects ever observed by human beings. This mission also set an altitude record for a space shuttle of 380 miles.
After 76 orbits of the earth, during which McCandless and his crewmates spent 121 hours in space, Discovery touched down at the Edwards Air Force Base in California, on April 29, 1990. By the time McCandless retired from the astronaut corps (and the Navy as a captain), he had logged more than 312 hours in space on two separate missions aboard the space shuttles.