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Farewells: Bruce McCandless II, MS '65

Pioneer Spacewalker

By Christine Foster

Many of us have seen the photo: A man in a puffy white space suit hovers in the blackness of space. Behind him is Earth, its blue oceans dotted with clouds. What’s remarkable is that, for the first time ever, the man is floating untethered in space. 

That pioneer, naval aviator and shuttle astronaut, Bruce McCandless II, MS ’65, died on December 21, 2017. He was 80.

 McCandless was born in 1937 into a family steeped in U.S. Navy tradition; both his father and grandfather were Medal of Honor recipients. His grandfather saw his intellectual potential and started introducing the boy to calculus before kindergarten. McCandless went on to study at the Naval Academy, graduating in 1958.

By the time McCandless arrived on the Farm for his master’s, he was a seasoned pilot, a father of two and a confident student who took exams in pen. “The thing that really defined Bruce was he was eager to learn,” says his wife, Ellen Shields McCandless. “He was pretty well versed on every topic. He was self-assured, not arrogant, but he was nearly always right.”

When NASA began looking for astronauts, it sought out McCandless for an interview. In 1966, he landed a coveted spot. Although he wasn’t on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for that first walk in 1969, McCandless played a memorable role: His is the voice from Mission Control that says their view was “worth the price of the trip.”

His own trips to space were via the space shuttle. In 1984, he made his famous untethered walk using a manned maneuvering unit. Years later, he remembered how incredibly cold it was and how, despite the dark, he could still identify some geographic features on Earth. 

McCandless’s son, Bruce III, remembers his father as an animal lover who included him in family rescue efforts for injured birds, including hawks, three owlets and a common loon. “He and I would go out at night with a seining net and catch little shrimp and fish for the loon, which lived temporarily in a plastic baby pool in our garage.” The loon eventually recovered and was set free.

McCandless was predeceased by his first wife, Bernice. He is survived by Ellen, his second wife; his children, Bruce and Tracy; two granddaughters; a brother, Douglas McCandless; and two sisters, Sue Woodridge and Rosemary McCandless.

Christine Foster is a Stanford contributing writer in Connecticut.

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