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The true story behind NASA’s most iconic photo, 40 years on

There's an unusual reason behind its universal appeal.

  • It’s 40 years since NASA astronauts captured this lone astronaut floating in space
  • He was testing out new technology
  • The glare on his helmet made it instantly iconic

Published on Feb 9, 2024 at 5:56PM (UTC+4)

Last updated on Feb 9, 2024 at 9:21PM (UTC+4)

Edited by Alessandro Renesis

40 Years Ago, NASA astronauts captured this epic photo of a seemingly lone astronaut floating in space.

But as this month marks four decades since it was captured, the story behind it might surprise you.

As he floated above Earth, the sun shone directly onto NASA astronaut, Bruce McCandless.

READ MORE! NASA discovers new super-Earth and it’s relatively close

The brightness prompted him to pull down the visor of his helmet, resulting in glare bouncing back into the camera.

The move made him appear faceless – meaning the astronaut was captured in time and space anonymously.

The result: anyone looking at the historic photo could pretend that it was them in the suit.

“My anonymity means people can imagine themselves doing the same thing,” McCandless said in an interview.

Adrift and untethered, the moment was preserved forever by fellow NASA astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson.

He used a Hasselblad camera he’d grabbed from the crew cabin of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

He’d learnt to angle the camera to get Earth’s horizon in the bottom of the frame.

He also managed to match Challenger’s 28.5-degree inclination in orbit.

Amid missions and everyday tasks, it’s proven life in space can change astronauts.

In fact, Astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to earth a changed man after 355 days aboard the ISS.

So what was McCandless actually doing?

His role as CAPCOM, or capsule communicator, on the Apollo 11 mission, meant he was in charge of transmitting voice messages to the original Moonwalkers.

On 7 February, 1984, he was debuting a new technology, the hand-controlled Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) backpack.

The MMU was a hand-operated jetpack that allowed astronauts to fly freely in space.

It released gaseous nitrogen propellant from 24 thrusters and three gyros.

The new tech allowed McCandless to leave the relative safety of his spacecraft and control their navigation without a lifeline connecting them to the craft.

Footage has revealed it’s not always easy for astronauts to move around in space.

More recent footage revealed the POV of a spacewalk on the ISS traveling at 17,500 mph.

McCandless quoted his Apollo 11 colleague, Neil Armstrong: “It may have been one small step for Neil – but it’s a heck of a big leap for me.”

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