An author writes an in-depth biography of his astronaut father
In the mid-1970s, it seemed that the brilliant, celebrated and accomplished pilot Bruce McCandless II would never go to space. Since almost every other member of his astronaut class was eventually selected for spaceflight, even the press began commenting and speculating about Bruce’s frustrating predicament, calling him a “forgotten astronaut.”
Was my father grieving for his lost potential? Was he bitter about the years he’d wasted, waiting for a flight that never came? Was he physically ill? All three? Tracy and I probably had bickered. And maybe there was more to it. A disagreement with my mother. The pressure to get by on a government salary. But I suspect the biggest frustration for my father was the feeling of being trapped. He had always been the top of his class. He had succeeded in everything he tried. Now he found himself a man without a mission, branded a failure in the media, an astronaut who would never see the stars. The Skylab program was over two years ago, and the space shuttle’s maiden flight was still half a decade into the future. Rumors circulated about the roster of a massive new astronaut class, a host of young hotshots eager to explore space as much as Bruce McCandless. He knew he could pass any test he was assigned. Only no one wanted to give it to him. So he stayed put for the time being. And the house was very quiet, as a forest becomes still before a storm.
McCandless’s father was confident that he was destined for space, and eventually his unremitting efforts paid off. In addition to accomplishing a mission, he also completed the first-ever untethered spacewalk, an event preserved in one of the most iconic and recognizable photographs of all time.
McCandless, a writer living in Austin, Texas, didn’t always set out to write his father’s story. He’s a veteran of writing what he describes as “quirky, unconventional fiction,” but Kirkus Reviews calls his biography of his own father “a captivating proof of perseverance in the pursuit of a heavenly ambition.”
History buffs and NASA enthusiasts may know that the man behind that famous statue, an immensely talented pilot, was also one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as on the manned maneuvering unit’s jetpack, or MMU — just that. that allowed him to do that spacewalk. But that is not the same as knowing what it was like for Bruce as a human being with his own hopes and dreams. As his son, McCandless was in a unique position to provide insight into his father as a person, but he also had the wisdom to know that parents are people just like everyone else and that there was enough about his father that he couldn’t have known.
The author knew his father had hoped to write his own autobiography, but his health failed before he was able to fulfill that desire. After Bruce’s death, when McCandless searched his parents’ estate with the help of his stepmother Ellen, he realized he had enough material to write the biography himself.
“Writers are always looking for stories,” he says, “but until my father died, it never felt like it was my place to tell. This is a great story, and the only difference between this and writing fiction is that I had to spend more time making sure I got the details right.” details correctly, but that he also checked the historical and biographical details.
This was where Ellen’s work with his parents’ papers came to the rescue as McCandless brought together science, national history, his father’s personal history and, of course, his own personal memories of his father. “My father probably would have written a better book,” he says, “but it would have been more of a technical book. I tried to be a little more subjective, a little more human and artistic.”
For example, McCandless always saw his father as someone who was completely confident in what he was doing, but while digging into more of his father’s history, he discovered that Bruce once thought of working in electronics or starting his own company.
McCandless flipped through old checkbooks, naval records, letters between his parents when his father’s naval career kept them apart. Many of the papers he used for his research could end up in the Smithsonian or the archives of the University of Houston. But to the author, the materials were pieces of his family history. He says he considers the book a “belated love letter to my parents,” and he thinks his father would enjoy the book if he could read it, although McCandless is sure his scientifically minded father would find a few flaws. . “He wasn’t always happy with some of my life decisions,” he admits, “but overall he was very enthusiastic and supportive of my writing.”
McCandless hoped to strike the right note, in which he could provide a balanced portrait of people he loved dearly, just as he hoped to capture both scientific and historical realities while also bringing to life the man behind the famous painting. As to whether his efforts were successful, Kirkus touts his “colorful prose” as “sharply realistic about spaceflight, but also alive for its lyrical humanism.”
Like NASA’s mission itself, the book is a testament to perseverance, hard work, and consistent faith in your goals. Readers can find Wonders all around anywhere that sells books and can catch up with the rest of McCandless’s writings from his website.
Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.