Severn School Grad Launches Original Space Telescope!

The new James Webb Space Telescope being worked on by NASA engineers

By Alex Brenia, ’22
Recently, NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope, a satellite designed to detect infrared light from celestial bodies. The telescope is so precise that it can detect light that took over 13 billion years to reach Earth, but did you know that a former Severn student helped launch the James Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope?

Captain Bruce McCandless II was the son of Rear Admiral Bruce McCandless, who graduated from Severn in 1928 and was one of three Severn alumni to earn the Medal of Honor in the Second World War. While he did not graduate from Severn, McCandless attended Severn for two years to prepare for the entrance exam to the United States Naval Academy. McCandless graduated from USNA in 1958 and became a Naval Aviator upon entering the service. He had a distinguished career as an aviator, deploying during the Cuban Missile Crisis and logging over 5,000 hours of jet flying time, and was selected to become an astronaut in 1966 at the age of 28, the youngest member of his group.

McCandless communicating with fellow Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they explore the surface of the moon

McCandless served as CAPCOM, the support officer in charge of communicating with astronauts, for the Apollo 11 and Apollo 14 moon landings and Skylab missions 3 and 4. After Skylab, McCandless helped invent and develop the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit), a rocket backpack that let astronauts leave their capsules during spacewalks. Because of his experience with the MMU, he became the first person ever to make an untethered spacewalk when he took part in the 1984 mission STS 41 aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. Fortunately for McCandless, his invention proved to be a tremendous success, and he became immortalized in one of the most famous space photographs of all time.

McCandless becomes the first person to perform an untethered spacewalk. This photograph remains one of the most endearing images of the Shuttle program and continues to inspire Americans to this day

Following the success of STS 41, McCandless worked on the Hubble Space Telescope and was selected to deploy Hubble in 1990. McCandless served as Primary Mission Specialist during the mission STS 31 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. As Hubble’s two solar panels unfurled, one of them got stuck, and McCandless was called upon to perform an emergency spacewalk to fix the panel. Fortunately, the panel freed itself without his intervention, although this wouldn’t be Hubble’s last mishap.

After retiring from NASA, McCandless worked as an engineer for Lockheed Martin for several years and passed away in 2017. He is buried with his father at the United States Naval Academy cemetery in Annapolis. McCandless lived a truly exceptional life, and was awarded, among other honors, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, Defense Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal (for his work on the MMU) and was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2005. McCandless’ incredible contributions to NASA and the United States were best summarized by his classmate at USNA, Senator John McCain, who said: “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.”

Discovery’s Canadarm lifts the Hubble Space Telescope out of its cargo bay

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