Exploring the Unseen Aspect: A Nightmare in Reverse
Space is a vast expanse harboring countless mysteries, from colossal voids spanning hundreds of millions of light-years to the perilous threat of tiny droplets lurking within astronauts’ spacesuits. Yet, when it comes to earning the title of the “most terrifying space photo,” one particular image stands out—the iconic snapshot of astronaut Bruce McCandless II, taken from the space shuttle Challenger on February 7, 1984.
On that historic day, both McCandless and fellow astronaut Bob Stewart embarked on a daring mission, strapping themselves into Manned Maneuvering Units (MMUs) to undertake an untethered spacewalk. Hurtling through space at a staggering speed of nearly 28,900 kilometers per hour (18,000 miles per hour), they ventured beyond the confines of their spacecraft.
Bruce McCandless etched his name in history as the first human ever to execute an untethered spacewalk, a feat that, despite rigorous training, evoked tension among onlookers on the ground.
In a reflective piece for the Guardian in 2015, McCandless recounted the nervous atmosphere: “My wife was at mission control, and there was quite a bit of apprehension. I wanted to say something similar to Neil [Armstrong] when he landed on the moon, so I said, ‘It may have been a small step for Neil, but it’s a heck of a big leap for me.’ That loosened the tension a bit.”
While hurtling through space at breakneck speeds might sound terrifying, the experience for the astronauts was quite different. Thanks to the MMU, which utilized nitrogen for thrust, the relative speed felt gentler, creating a surreal sensation for those floating alongside Challenger.
Astronaut Vance D. Brand, elucidating the mechanics of the MMU on NASA’s website, likened it to an “early-day Buck Rogers flying belt” that moved at a modest one to three miles per hour, propelled by spurts of cold nitrogen gas.
For individuals who find comfort in being firmly grounded or at least tethered to a spacecraft, the untethered image of McCandless floating in space may seem terrifying. However, for the trailblazing astronaut, the predominant emotions were those of professional accomplishment and personal elation.
“I don’t like those overused lines ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth,’ but when I was free from the shuttle, they felt accurate,” McCandless expressed in the Guardian. “It was a wonderful feeling, a mix of personal elation and professional pride: it had taken many years to get to that point.”
In unraveling the story behind the “most terrifying photo” taken in space, one discovers a narrative not solely defined by fear but by the triumph of human ingenuity and the pursuit of unprecedented achievements in the cosmic realm.