Editor's note: Addie Broyles is a longtime food writer, who wrote for the Austin American-Statesman for 13 years. This piece was published in her weekly newsletter, "The Feminist Kitchen," where she shares stories about parenthood, grief, ancestry, self healing and creativity. Check it out here.
You know Bruce McCandless' most famous moment, but you probably don't know his name.
McCandless is the astronaut who, in 1984, became the first untethered astronaut in space. He's the guy on those posters, mugs, shirts and everything else NASA could sell with the image of his "leisurely waltz with eternity," as his son calls it in his new book, "Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space."
'Wonders All Around' is a new book by Austinite Bruce McCandless III about his dad, the astronaut Bruce McCandless II. (Bruce McCandless III)
I met McCandless III, who lives in Austin with his wife Pati, for a coffee a few months ago, thanks to the introduction from a mutual friend. As we talked about losing our dads, being writers and parents and living in Austin while still dealing with COVID, his dad's famous flight didn't come up, but the process of writing such an epic biography of a complex, only recently passed man was something worth unpacking over coffee.
I hadn't read the book yet, but over the next few weeks, I got to know the McCandless family in such a sweet way that I wanted to write a little about the book here to perhaps inspire you to seek out a copy of "Wonders All Around."
As much as this is a book about space, it's also a book about grief. And persistence. And stoicism. And masculinity and maternality.
The elder McCandless died in 2017, just a few years after losing his wife, Bernice, to cancer.
This passing of the torch from father to son left the younger McCandless inspired to take on this decades-long narrative. McCandless III sets the tone for the book with a memory of the family sitting around the dinner table at their home outside Johnson Space Center near Houston in the mid 1970s, when his dad, who joined NASA in 1966 at the age of 28, wasn't sure he'd ever actually make it to space.
"Our dinners were somber affairs. We ate around a rectangular Formica table in the breakfast nook. Tracy and I sat on benches padded with orange vinyl cushions. Mom and Dad occupied faux-Spanish style chairs with green felt upholstery. Despite the informal, Howard Johnson's-at-the-airport feel of the furnishings, there was a tension in the air that set in right around the time the frozen string beans started steaming. I had the feeling that my sister and I had forgotten to do something important, though I couldn't figure out what it was, or that judgment had been rendered on us and we'd been found guilty of … something — again, it was unclear what. Horseplay was prohibited. The TV and all sources of music or other frivolity were turned off, and singing was strictly forbidden. The only sound came from the aquarium pump. My father had a 100-gallon tank along the wall behind his chair. Sometimes the big plecostomus would attach itself by its mouth to the glass facing us, and I imagined it sucking all the oxygen out of the room."
Imagining what it must have been like to require oxygen to survive, not in outer space but in the living room with your family, sets up the story of the McCandless ancestors, including a guy who was killed by Wild Bill Hickok and the author's grandfather, who was an admiral in the U.S. Navy.
No pressure, Bruce.
It was fascinating to read about the 18 years that Bruce McCandless II worked for NASA before he finally had his first flight, which debuted the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jet-fueled backpack that he and Ed Whitsett Jr. spent so many years developing. (That's the joystick-controlled machine he's wearing in that mind-bending poster that hung on millions of Americans' walls over the following decade.)
The author McCandless has the unenviable task of trying to put into words what that flight must have felt like. His dad flew 150 feet away from the shuttle Challenger, which would, of course, break into a million little pieces just a few years later.
When President Reagan called the shuttle to congratulate the astronauts that day in 1984, the command center set up a demonstration space walk to give the president a live view of McCandless through the shuttle window.
Bruce McCandless II, trains with Kathy Sullivan, right, in preparation to launch the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)
The only problem was, there wasn't much fuel left. McCandless went out anyway, trying to stay within 10-15 feet of the spacecraft. He got into position and turned off the unit to preserve propellant. After the president said a few words and the video switched off, McCandless turned on the unit and "looked for the closest piece of the orbiter, pointed at it, put the hand controller in +X (and) got a sort of sighing noise as it accelerated in that direction." He ran out of fuel just as he grabbed onto a rail on the orbiter. Hand over hand, he brought himself back to the donning station.
It's that kind of suspense that made this book so thrilling to read.
There's space tension like when McCandless is operating as CAPCOM, the only person talking to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they are walking on the surface of the moon, and his commander wants him to break protocol and call them back early, even though there are no signs of distress.
The book is also so touching. I cried while reading about the declining health of Bernice, who survived so many astronaut wife struggles over the years and at the end of her life remained a loving partner and mother.
Bruce McCandless was a Navy pilot who was picked to join NASA in 1966. His first space flight wasn't until 1984. (NASA)
It's easy to forget that McCandless II had an entirely other memorable historic moment—launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990—and this one seems to have struck an even deeper chord with McCandless III.
The Hubble launch was McCandless' second and final flight. He was 52 and had worked at NASA for 24 years.
McCandless II spends the last chapters of the book making a compelling case that his dad's work to fix and update the Hubble are among the greatest achievements to science. He continued to work on Hubble for another two decades after retiring from NASA through his work at Lockheed Martin.
Bruce McCandless, left, and the flight crew that launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. He was 52 years old. (NASA)
He was the "nuts, bolts, screws, and wires guy," the auto mechanic rather than the scientist, who kept the telescope going 340 miles above Earth for more than twice its life expectancy. The Hubble has been cited in more than 18,000 scientific papers and has revealed countless secrets and unsolved mysteries from around the universe and beyond.
"The size, shape, and sheer spectral weirdness of the images boggle the imagination and make prophets and dreamers of us all," McCandless writes toward the end of "Wonders All Around. "Some of us pay therapists to tell us we're important and unique. Then we check in with Hubble so the satellite can inform us just how galactically marginal we all are. The truth is somewhere in the middle."
What a beautiful reminder.
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Whether you became a home chef when the pandemic began or have always enjoyed crafting delicious meals, it’s undeniable that no home is complete without a cozy kitchen.
Take a peek at these five gems on the market now.
In the South Austin Parten community, this castle-like four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom stunner puts you just minutes from Austin, Dripping Springs and other nearby communities. Stark white and black contrasting features give the interiors a clean look, while a large curving staircase serves as a centerpiece for the ground floor. The chef’s kitchen is spacious, facing the living room and multiple windows, and immediately draws the eye. Upstairs you’ll find a spa-style bathroom, game room with a wet bar and Hill Country Views.This listing is held by Adam Zell and Lexie Zell.
This hyper-modern, 3,300-square-foot Scandinavian-styled home is a paradise for natural light in Hyde Park. With four bedrooms and three-and-a-half bathrooms spread across one story, the home rests on concrete columns to protect from extreme climate conditions. Inside, you’ll find crisp, clean trim in the open-plan kitchen with built-in luxury appliances and a walk-in pantry. Lofty 12-foot ceilings and gigantic windows set the tone, with a wet bar and second living room for entertaining. When you retire to the master bedroom, enjoy a warm bath in the soaking tub or enjoy the multi-output shower.
This listing is held by Austin Stowell.
In the heart of Westlake, this stacked three-story new build is a sprawling 4,483 square feet with five bedrooms and four-and-a-half bathrooms. The home is centrally located and full of natural light, especially on the open concept first floor, which includes the kitchen, casual dining space and living area. The third floor has a bedroom and loft, perfect for the at-home worker.
This listing is held by Jen Templeton and Cheryl Albanese.
This 3,539 square foot, three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom Tarrytown townhouse is newly remodeled but still holds on to its vintage charm. Bright white cabinets, a green accented island and quartzite countertops in the kitchen give the space a cheery feeling. Entering on the second floor, you’ll have to walk downstairs to get to the bedrooms, which include ensuite baths and walk-in showers. The third level bonus room is the perfect place for an at-home office.This listing is held by Cindy Fowler.
Just outside Austin in the sleepy town of Wimberley, the Backbone Ridge Ranch is one of the city’s most “iconic and pristine” properties. On nearly 50 acres of land, the house takes you into nature without getting too far from nearby cities. With 4,369 square feet, six bedrooms and six-and-a-half bathrooms, floor-to-ceiling windows effortlessly light the entire space. You’ll feel like a celebrity chef while cooking in the kitchen, even more so entertaining from the outdoor kitchen and living space. The 33,000-gallon quarried limestone pool is perfect for those hot Hill Country summers!This listing is held by Nicole Kessler.
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Sample some spirits
When: 11:30 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Where: Desert Door, 211 Darden Hill Rd. Driftwood
What: Attend Desert Door Distillery’s first Explorer Series of 2022. Guests will be able to sample Caliber on its own or in a delicious cocktail.
Eat some chili
When: 12 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sagebrush, 5500 S. Congress Ave.
What: Enjoy great chili and great music at the 14th Annual Chili Cold Blood Chili Cook-Off. All proceeds will be donated to Health Alliance for Austin Musicians in memory of Nick Curran.
Enjoy some local art
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Neill-Cochran House Museum, 2310 San Gabriel St.
What: The Neil-Cochran House Museum will host a multi-media art exhibition by Austin artist Nell Gottlieb, titled “Land as Persona: An Artist’s Journey.” Gottlieb works in multiple media to reexamine her coming of age, white and female in the Jim Crow South.
Catch some improv comedy
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: GameOn! ATX, 1515 Dungan Ln.
What: ColdTowne ThrowDowne is an improv comedy tournament between troupes that will take place in front of a live studio audience and streamed live to the world on Twitch.
Catch a Johnny Cash-style show
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Georgetown Palace Theatre, 810 S. Austin Ave.
What: Experience music history with a unique musical about love and faith, struggle and success, rowdiness and redemption, and the healing power of home and family set to the tune of the legendary Johnny Cash.