It was one of the most famous images of the Space Age. What many people didn’t realize was how far that “untethered space walk” travelled.
Spacewalking was nothing new by the time space shuttles began to soar. In March 1965, the Russian Alexei Leonov became the first person to take a “walk” in space in an exercise that nearly went wrong. Three months later, American Ed White followed his lead, but both were tied to their spacecraft.
It was left for two astronauts on the shuttle Challenger, Bruce McCandless and Robert Stewart, to try an untied version. With Robert Gibson taking photos from inside the shuttle with a Hasselblad, McCandless achieved this on February 7th 1984, becoming the first “human satellite” traveling at some 17,500 miles per hour.
He reached a distance of 320 feet, with the azure Earth 150 nautical miles below, but McCandless spent just a little more than an hour free-flying. Even today, spacesuits are awkward, unwieldy and uncomfortable; while spacewalks typically lasted no longer than three hours, the astronauts are often trapped in their suits for as long as 10 hours, and had to drink through straws.
Although McCandless’ photo inspired many sci-fi fantasies, his spacewalk would amount to nothing more than a stunt. After McCandless and Stewart, four other astronauts on later shuttles flew untethered, but after 1984, NASA stopped producing the nitrogen-powered jet pack (in that inelegant space jargon, known as Manned Maneuvering Unit). The shuttle’s robotic arm precluded the need for such daring spacewalks.
Today, a modified version of the jetpack is worn only as a emergency backup during spacewalks. It was smaller but by no ways capable of reaching the distances previously travelled.
And there in a way is a metaphor for the American space programme.