Bruce McCandless, first astronaut to fly freely in space, dies at 80

Bruce McCandless, the first astronaut to fly untethered in space, died Thursday in California, NASA officials said Friday. He was 80.

No cause of death was reported.

McCandless was famously photographed in 1984, alone in dark space above a blue Earth. He traveled more than 300 feet away from the space shuttle Challenger during the historic spacewalk.

This Feb. 7, 1984 photo made available by NASA shows astronaut Bruce McCandless II, participating in a spacewalk a few meters away from the cabin of the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Challenger, using a nitrogen-propelled Manned Maneuvering Unit. The Johnson Space Center says McCandless died Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 in California. (NASA via AP)

File Feb. 7, 1984: Astronaut Bruce McCandless participates in a spacewalk a few meters away from the cabin of the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Challenger, using a nitrogen-propelled Manned Maneuvering Unit.  (NASA via Associated Press)

“I was grossly over-trained. I was just anxious to get out there and fly. I felt very comfortable. … It got so cold my teeth were chattering and I was shivering, but that was a very minor thing,” he told the Daily Camera in 2006.

McCandless wrote in the Guardian in 2015 that it was “a wonderful feeling.”

“(A) mix of personal elation and professional pride: it had taken many years to get to that point,” McCandless wrote.

Born in Boston, McCandless graduated from high school in Long Beach, Calif. He later graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and earned two master’s degrees.

At Annapolis, McCandless was a classmate of future U.S. senator John McCain.

“The iconic photo of Bruce soaring effortlessly in space has inspired generations of Americans to believe that there is no limit to the human potential,” McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement.

McCandless pushed those limits in helping develop the jetpack and was later part of the 1990 shuttle crew that delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit.

He also served as the Mission Control capsule communicator in Houston as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969.

During his spacewalk, his wife was at mission control, and "there was quite a bit of apprehension,” McCandless wrote in the Guardian.

“I wanted to say something similar to Neil 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,'" he wrote. "That loosened the tension a bit.”

The veteran astronaut also participated in the Cuban blockade in the 1962 missile crisis as a naval aviator.

“Bruce served his country with humility and dignity, and encouraged all of us to reach new heights,” McCain said.

McCandless is survived by his wife, Ellen Shields McCandless, two children and two grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.