An author pens an in-depth biography of his astronaut father
In the mid-1970s it was looking like the brilliant, celebrated, and accomplished pilot Bruce McCandless II would never get to go to space. As almost every other member of his astronaut class was eventually selected for spaceflights, even the press began to comment and speculate on Bruce’s frustrating predicament, calling him a “forgotten astronaut.”
Was my father mourning 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 had probably been bickering. And maybe there was more to it. A disagreement with my mother. The pressures of getting by on a government paycheck. But I suspect the biggest frustration for my dad was the feeling that he was stuck. He’d always been at the top of his class. He’d succeeded at everything he tried. Now he found himself a man without a mission, branded as a failure in the media, an astronaut who would never see the stars. The Skylab program had been over for two years, and the first flight of the space shuttle was still half a decade in the future. There were rumors going around about selection of a gigantic new astronaut class, a host of young hotshots just as eager to see space as Bruce McCandless was. He knew he could pass whatever test he was assigned. It was just that no one would give it to him. So, for the moment, he sat. And the house was very quiet, the way a forest grows quiet before a storm.
McCandless’ father had faith that he was destined for space, and eventually his relentless efforts paid off. He not only made it onto a mission, but also took the very first untethered spacewalk, an event that was preserved in one of the most iconic and recognizable photographs of all time.
McCandless, a writer living in Austin, Texas, didn’t always plan to write his father’s story. He is a veteran of penning what he describes as “quirky, unconventional fiction,” but Kirkus Reviews calls his biography of his own father “an absorbing testament to perseverance in pursuit of an empyrean ambition.”
History buffs and NASA enthusiasts might know that the man behind that famous image, an immensely talented pilot, was also one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope as well as the Manned Maneuvering Unit jet pack, or MMU—the very thing that enabled him to make that spacewalk. But that’s not the same as knowing what it was like for Bruce as a human being with hopes and dreams of his own. As his son, McCandless was in a unique position to provide insight on his father as a person, but he also had the wisdom to know that parents are human beings just like everyone else and that there was plenty about his father that he couldn’t know.
The author knew his father had hoped to write his own autobiography, but his health failed before he was able to act on that desire. After Bruce’s death, when McCandless was sorting through his parents’ estate with the help of his stepmother, Ellen, he realized he had plenty of material to write the biography himself.
“Writers are always looking for stories,” he says, “but until my dad died it never felt like it was mine 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.” He knew that he not only needed to make sure he got the scientific details correct, but that he also fact-checked the historical and biographical details.
This was where Ellen’s work with his parents’ papers came to the rescue as McCandless put together science, national history, his father’s personal history, and, of course, his own personal memories of his father. “My dad would have probably written a better book,” he says, “but it would have been more of a technical book. I tried to be a little bit more subjective, a little bit more human and artistic.”
For example, McCandless always saw his dad as someone who was totally certain of what he was doing, but in the process of digging into more of his father’s history, he discovered that Bruce once thought of working in electronics or starting his own business.
McCandless went 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 might end up either in the Smithsonian or the archives at the University of Houston. But for the author, the materials were pieces of his family history. He says he thinks of the book as a “belated love letter to my parents,” and he thinks his dad would like the book if he could read it, though McCandless is sure his scientifically minded father would find a few errors. “He wasn’t always pleased with some of my life decisions,” he admits, “but he was generally very enthusiastic and very supportive of my writing.”
McCandless hoped to strike the right tone, in which he could give a balanced portrait of people he loved deeply, just as he hoped to include both the scientific and historical realities while also bringing to life the human being behind the famous picture. As to whether his efforts were successful, Kirkus praises his “colorful prose” as “shrewdly realistic about spaceflight but also alive to its lyrical humanism.”
Much like the mission of NASA itself, the book is a testament to perseverance, hard work, and consistent faith in your goals. Readers can find Wonders All Around wherever books are sold and can catch up with the rest of McCandless’ writing from his website.
Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.