3:39pm

Fri August 17, 2012
Reporter's Notebook

"It's A Heck Of A Big Leap For Me." Bruce McCandless, Astronaut

Astronaut Bruce McCandless has been involved with the U.S. Space Program for decades. He worked in ground control during Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon in 1969. In 1984, he became the first man to spacewalk untethered in an MMU, or Manned Maneuvering Unit.

The photo of McCandless floating in space with the Earth as his backdrop has become one of the most iconic images of the US space program. I went to Littleton on Thursday to cover Lockheed Martin's 100th anniversary celebration.

The story I came away with was quite different.

About 50 to 75 Lockheed Martin workers had gathered in a large factory to hear remarks from Mark Valerio, their VP. However all eyes (and cell phone cameras) were soon turned to the man standing to the side of the factory floor.

An Unassuming Man

Slightly hunched over, the white haired man was dressed in gray slacks, a dress shirt and blue jacket. On the jacket were multiple mission patches. One said CHALLENGER, another HUBBLE.

McCandless speaking to Lockheed Martin staff.
Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC

When Valerio announced the long time Lockheed Martin employee as Bruce McCandless, applause erupted on the factory floor.

This was not just an older vet of the company, he was a superstar. I had to speak to this guy... and learn why he attracted employees like George Clooney attracts throngs of adoring fans.

One clue could be a remark he made during his 1984 spacewalk. floating thousands of miles above the planet  McCandless exclaimed, "May well have been one small step for Neil, but it's a heck of a big leap for me!"

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Q: Bruce, your first space walk was on a Challenger shuttle mission, and you were a Mission Specialist?

A: “When people hear the name Challenger they think of the accident. But, the Challenger was an excellent spacecraft, it performed beautiful for us. It was very unfortunate that the solid rocket booster malfunctioned…[but] it did a great job for us.”

Q: You worked for Lockheed Martin at the time, or what it was called then, Martin Marietta. Why did they choose you to go into space?

A: “I was very pleased to be selected to be the first to fly the Manned Maneuvering Unit…sorta a human satellite or a human cannonball if you will. Partially, or probably largely based on my work with Martin Marietta in developing the unit, qualifying it, and being the guy that was most proficient in flying it. The actual space walk, I’d like to point out, I shared it with then Army Major Bob Stewart who’s currently living down in Colorado Springs, the Woodland Park area.”

Bruce and I end up next to the latest in Lockheed Martin technical design. It’s a true virtual reality simulator called the CHIL. I ended our talk by asking how technology has changed since the cutting edge science he saw during the Challenger years:

“The principle simulator for the Manned Maneuvering Unit, the space operations simulator, was something that had a 17 foot wide carriage that moved up and down this 60 foot long railroad track. It was literally the Erector Set or sort of a railroading type approach to the simulation. The controls of the MMU generated electrical signals which went into a digital computer –by now a very primitive digital computer by our standards. What you saw in the virtual reality laboratory here, it’s a fantastic tool for interactive design, for real time interactive design.”

McCandless then shuffled out of the room. Into another group of Lockheed Martin employees eager to get a photo with the man who ventured into space strapped to the MMU he designed, and moved the human race farther into the final frontier.