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Flying free in space

THE CURRENT FLIGHT of Endeavour will see the final spacewalks done by astronauts using a space shuttle airlock. For the foreseeable future, all further spacewalks will be done by Space Station astronauts using the Station’s airlock. And all these spacewalks will see the astronauts/cosmonauts tethered to the shuttle/Station to keep them from floating away.

But back in 1984, a handful of astronauts did what no one had done before and very few have done since…they flew free, untethered, away from their space vehicle.

Using a Buck Rogers-style backpack called the Manned Manoeuvring Unit (MMU), the astronauts could control their movements using tiny gas jets, flying free from the space shuttle and performing tasks completely on their own.

Bruce McCandless flying free with an MMU

NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless became first 'human satellite' in 1984.

Bruce McCandless—seen in the photo above—was the first to test the MMU. He made his historic flight on February 7, 1984 during mission STS 41-B, becoming the first human satellite.

The MMU wasn’t used after 1984. A smaller version called SAFER—the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue—was developed and tested in untethered flight on missions STS-64 (1994) and STS-92 (2000). All subsequent spacewalking astronauts have used a backpack with SAFER built in, just in case they became untethered and needed to make a safe return to the shuttle’s/Station’s airlock.

Adapted from information issued by National Air and Space Museum / NASA.

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