February 7, 1984: Bruce McCandless and Robert L. Stewart perform the first ever untethered space walk.
On February 3, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying five men, including two Mission Specialists who would test NASA’s new Manned Maneuvering Unit, an Astronaut Propulsion Unit that would allow them to perform “spacewalks” without the use of any cables. The two astronauts, with the help of the MMU, would be able to travel farther from their spacecraft and for longer periods of time than any previous spacewalks. The article that appeared in the New York Times detailing the event described it as “a spectacle of bravery and beauty”.
The first spacewalk ever performed was conducted by cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, who remained outside (but within fifty meters of) his spacecraft for around twelve minutes.The first American to perform a spacewalk was Ed White, who spent twenty-one minutes outside his spacecraft, and he did not venture far from his craft either. McCandless’ and Stewarts’ spacewalk, which took place on the fourth day post launch, lasted nearly six hours, and they traveled over 300 feet away from their orbiter without ever losing sight of it. When Bruce McCandless left the craft, it was orbiting over Florida, from where the shuttle had launched (at the sight, McCandless remarked: “It really is beautiful”.); when he returned, he was floating (actually traveling at over 17,000 miles an hour) over Africa. The photograph of McCandless floating free and untethered in space has since become one of the most widely-distributed, well-known images of the American space program. Of the MMU itself, McCandless and Stewart reported that, for the most part, the device had functioned flawlessly, although its use was discontinued after 1984.