“It’s not that simple,” said Melissa Pratt, coaxing a hex nut into place with fingers made clumsy by her pressure suit. She floated, a meter from the space station Myriad, steadying herself against the space scooter’s mooring cradle. “Scheduling a wedding isn’t easy. Pass the twelve-millimeter wrench?” She reached out a hand to Declan Adair.
A couple of days before, the anti-meteor lasers had missed a pebble smaller than a pea, and it had struck the parked scooter with the energy of an armor-piercing bullet. Now they were awaiting replacement parts from Earth, and working extra shifts in the meantime to fix what they could.
“Yeah, Pratt. Sure.” He held the wrench handle while she snapped the lanyard around her wrist. “Your sister knew you had leave coming up, and she still planned her wedding for while you were off planet. Sounds like a cop-out to me.”
Pratt began to tighten the nut. “Huh?”
“Think about it. This way she doesn’t have to tell you not to bring Suzanne. Wouldn’t want the bridesmaids getting lesbian cooties, would she?”
Damn him! “Ahhh, she probably thought she was doing me a favor. Getting me out of a bind. There. Last one.”
“Good enough. Race you back to the airlock.”
“No way. And use the safety line, okay?”
Most of the Myriad’s hull was a cluttered junkyard, with solar panels, telescopes, anti-meteor lasers, cooling fins and unidentifiable boxes jumbled together. Obsolete experiments were rarely removed: to ship them back to Earth, or even incinerate them on a re-entry orbit, would have used precious fuel. But a rough rectangle around the scooter cradle was kept clear. Even the network of safety cables did not extend into the landing zone.
“It’s only twenty meters.”
She bit back a sharp response. “We’ve been out here for six hours. A few more minutes won’t hurt.”
“No!” she snapped. Yes, she thought, of course I’m nervous. Space is big and merciless and you don’t get second chances. But if I told you that, you’d never let me forget it.
“This is our chance to be real astronauts rather than zero-gee car mechanics. And we ought to be keeping in practice. Safety, you know?” Nonetheless, he clipped onto the thin synthetic cable and launched himself toward the metal forest.
Pratt clenched her fists, then tried to relax and admire the fat blue crescent of Earth, its twilit inner edge soft, its outer edge hard and bright.
“Oh, shit!” Declan’s voice was harsh. “It won’t shut off!”
He was attempting to slap himself on the back, perhaps hoping to unstick the valve, as he accelerated towards a rack of solar panels. Could he stop himself at that speed without rupturing his suit?
He collided with a strut, awkwardly, shoulder-first. Pratt winced at the crunch on her radio; then silence. The solar panel canted drunkenly. And, beyond it, Adair was still moving, tumbling like a dropped doll toward the vast bulk of Earth. The safety line, cut on some sharp edge, drifted in a loose arc.
“Adair! Adair! Can you hear me?” she called. There was no answer. She switched channels. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! Myriad, this is Pratt – Adair’s thruster has malfunctioned. His safety line is broken. Approximate vector, Earthward. His radio has been damaged. Over.”
She kept her eyes on the receding figure, alternately brighter and dimmer as he rotated.
The watch officer’s voice crackled in her ears. “Pratt, return to airlock immediately. We have Adair on radar and visual, and are trying to read his suit GPS remotely.”
“I say again, his suit radio is damaged. That may not be possible.” Her eyes lingered on Adair. Was he conscious? Could he get his thruster working again? Did he have enough propellant to get back? She strained her eyes to follow the distant speck. Was his course changing? He seemed to be moving across the face of the earth, towards the middle of the disc, still receding.
“Pratt, this is Myriad. Return to the airlock, ASAP.”
The tiny white spot shrank to nothing.
Pratt floated behind Li Chang’s shoulder, peering anxiously at the video screen and trying not to drift into the Old Lady, Station Commander Isabella Verdi.
“Zoom that and run it again, Chang,” ordered Verdi, her voice neutral.
The pattern of glowing lines expanded. “Looks as if he’s using his steering thrusters,” Chang said. “That blast must have drained his main tank.”
“He wasn’t even trying to get back,” said Pratt. “He was just accelerating towards Earth.” Trying to end it more quickly? she wondered. No, Adair was a fighter.
“That’s it!” Chang said. “He’s trying to get into the boomerang zone! Maybe there’s a chance.”
“Boomerang zone?” asked Pratt.
Chang looked at her. “You didn’t do the weapon systems course, did you?”
Pratt shook her head. While the 2034 Convention allowed space stations limited anti-piracy defenses, they had never been used. Space piracy, for reasons of economics and physics, had never made the transition from science fiction into reality. Adair and Chang had taken the weapons training course anyhow, and spent hours playing with the fire control simulator while the rest of the class were studying air plant maintenance and hydroponics.
“Well,” Chang continued. “Orbits are periodic. Say you, um, throw a wrench off a satellite, its new orbit and the satellite’s orbit both keep passing through the point where you threw it.”
“But they don’t come back at the same time.”
“Not usually, no. For some directions the wrench comes back too early, for others too late. But in between the late and the early ones, there are directions where it’ll come back at the right time, clang into your hull! First-year calculus, the intermediate value theorem. Our instructor called that the boomerang zone. The math is messy for high velocities, but at Adair’s speed the sweet spot’s at about ninety degrees to the orbit.”
“Has anyone ever been rescued this way?” asked Verdi, gazing at the viewport.
“We’ve never lost anybody before. The boomerang zone’s just where the instructor said not to fire missiles. Not a good direction to throw trash, either.”
“But you mean we can rescue him?” Pratt asked, not daring to hope. She moved forward, bumping into Chang.
“Slow down, Pratt,” Verdi said. “Adair was aiming for the boomerang zone, but that doesn’t mean he made it. Chang, do you have a fix on him yet?”
Chang’s voice was slow. “Yes. Yes, I have a fix.”
“He came pretty close. Maybe twenty meters per second Earthward, and only a bit more than one forward. Either his suit navigation system was still working, or he’s one lucky guy. I’ve got the computer predicting his relative position.” The stereo screen showed a circle, feathered with green vectors like a Sioux warbonnet. One red arrow crept along the circle, growing longer as it moved.
“How far is he now?” asked Verdi.
“About eighty-seven kilometers,” Chang answered. “Still increasing at a few hundred meters per minute.”
“Merda! Too far. Without the scooter, we cannot go there.”
“But he gets closer again. Look.” His fingers danced on the keyboard, and the shorter arrows turned blue. “In about an hour, he gets within twenty-five kilometers. That’s our only chance. With an extended-range suit thruster, I think we can do it.”
Pratt’s stomach knotted. Maybe it could happen. **** Her left arm ached. She realized that she was holding the grab bar in a death grip, and tried to relax.
Verdi chewed on her lower lip. “Does he have enough air?”
Chang thought for a moment. “Going to be tight. He’s a big guy. He went outside seven hours ago, and our orbit is a hundred and twenty-seven minutes. He’s got a Mark Six suit, doesn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Pratt.
“Eight hours air, according to the manual. If he stays very calm, doesn’t breathe too hard, there’s probably enough. And once somebody gets there they can give him more oxygen, too.”
“What about thrusters? We don’t keep many extended-range thrusters in inventory now we have the Scooter.”
Chang tapped the keys. “We’ve used up four with the scooter repair. One left, twenty on order. Plenty of short-range, of course, but there’s no way to change or refuel them outside. They weren’t designed for that.”
“All right, Chang, we’ll try!” said Verdi. “Run the ballistics for Orlov’s body mass – he’s on the next shift and has enough EVA experience. I’ll page him.”
“Can I go?” said Pratt. “I’ve had as much EVA experience as Orlov, and I weigh less.”
The commander cupped her chin in her hand and looked at Pratt speculatively, as if trying to find a reason to turn her down. Finally she sighed and shrugged. “Okay. Pratt will go. Pratt, you’ll need a freshly charged suit, and mine’s the only other one here in your size. Got that, Chang? Calculate mass for my suit: Mark Four size small, extended-range thrusters with full fuel. And remember, Pratt, you’re going to be doing this under instrumental guidance. No second guessing. Got it?”
Ten minutes later, Pratt was struggling into Verdi’s space suit, while Verdi held the suit and tried to stop her drifting into the suit racks. The inside of the suit had the usual odors: sweat, air-pump lubricant, and the harsh chemical smell of the cleaning solution. And something else, lemony and floral – the Old Lady’s soap? Pratt heard a far-away voice and hastily switched on the suit’s external microphone.
“…already worked a long shift. Andrei could have done it.”
******* When I came out in the second week of Basic, half my family were telling me to pray for God to cure me, and the others were telling me to see a psychiatrist. Adair just said ‘You’re into girls, huh? Good choice!’ and slapped me on the back. *******
”He’s my partner,” she said, and looked at the head-up display. The suit was ready.
“I see.” The Commander glanced at the clock. “Well, it’s time for you to go out and bring him back. Remember, Chang and the computer will talk you through everything. Do exactly what they tell you. You won’t have enough reserve propellant for seat-of-the-pants flying.”
Pratt turned and undogged the inner airlock door. Through the thick fabric of the suit, she felt the Old Lady’s hand on her shoulder.
“Good luck, Pratt. In bocca al lupo!”
You didn’t work with Verdi without learning the response to that. “Crepi!” Pratt said, and pulled herself into the steel coffin.
“Pratt, this is Myriad. Your course is drifting. Please correct. Over.” Chang’s voice crackled urgently in her ear. The flight path indicator in her HUD was flashing red against the brilliant tapestry of stars, the crosshairs far off-center in the circle.
“Wilco.” The thrusters hissed, and after a few seconds the rebellious indicator turned back to green. She looked at the propellant gauge; it still read eighty-six percent. But that was misleading; on the trip out the thrusters were only moving her sixty kilo mass and the suit. On the return trip they would be pushing more than twice the load. Mass was a liability to an astronaut.
Adair didn’t see it that way, of course. The way he saw it, the meek could inherit the earth if they wanted it, but space belonged to the hard-driving, hard-drinking, practical-joking alpha males; and if it took a bit more fuel to lift them, that’s what fuel was for.
No, that wasn’t fair. He was reliable when it mattered. That time that drunk driver had knocked Suzanne off her bike… The Atlanta Medical Center phoned late at night, told me she was unconscious in the ICU. I asked Adair where the nearest Greyhound station was, told him why I needed to go, and he just handed me the keys to his Mustang, his baby, fifty years old and looked like new. I told him I didn’t drive standard—who does these days?—and he rolled his eyes and said Neil Armstrong would be turning over in his grave. Then he drove me seven hours to Atlanta, stayed all weekend till I knew Suzanne was going to be okay, and drove me back.
The radio broke in. “Stand by to kill thrusters in fifteen seconds.”
“Wilco. Out.” Her instincts screamed for more acceleration, to get there as fast as possible. But following her flight plan would get her to the point of closest approach at the right time. Patience! She found the palm switch and waited.
“Kill thrusters in five, four, three, two, one. Cut.” Sudden silence. “Turn yourself around and prepare for deceleration in approximately two minutes. Out.”
Will he have enough air? she wondered. Will he stay calm? Would I? If it were me I’d be praying. But Adair was a stubborn son of a bitch. If he ever did start to pray – which didn’t seem likely – it surely wouldn’t be when he needed a favor.
She turned herself with tiny puffs of the steering thrusters. The stars wheeled around her, Earth was coming up on her left. She located the space station, a tiny irregular blob of light overhead, in Taurus. A feeling of isolation washed over her like an icy wave; she fought it down before it could turn to fear.
“Pratt, this is Myriad. Stand by to decelerate. And be careful—you’ve been using propellant slightly faster than predicted. Out.”
The display showed eighty-four percent. She could do it on that, she thought grimly. She would have to. On command, she triggered the main thruster. The suit pressed gently on her feet, buttocks, and underarms, maybe a twentieth of her Earth weight. The propellant level dropped slowly, inexorably. Seventy-nine…seventy-eight…
“Pratt, this is Myriad. Look down. You should have visual contact.” She looked towards her feet; a blue ring swam into the bottom of the head-up display, static against the moving glass, as if projected from the phantom floor that she felt beneath her soles. In the middle of the ring was a white dot, slowly brightening. She flicked the radio to suit-to-suit with her chin.
“Adair, this is Pratt. Do you read me? Over.” There was no response. She called again, her throat tight with fear. Then she remembered that his radio was dead, and relaxed a little. Mustn’t let the stress get to me.
The white dot grew into the familiar shape of a space suit and drifted slowly past her, maybe fifty meters away. A few more seconds of maneuvering, and she had matched position and velocity. She grabbed Adair’s arm, and turned his suit so that she could see him through the faceplate. One side of his face was in ink-black shadow, the other ghostly behind the coated glass. The blood-oxygen gauge beside his faceplate was in the low yellow; his suit’s oxygen reserve was near zero.
His eyes opened.
She put her faceplate up against his so that sound could travel between helmets, and raised her voice. “Hey, Rocket Man. The Old Lady’s sent me to bring you in for flogging.” She clipped a linking strap onto his suit.
His eyes opened. “What kept you?” A long, hungry breath. “And why aren’t you on a safety line?” One arm went around her shoulder in a feeble half-embrace.
“You idiot.” She was not going to cry. Not in a space suit. She changed channel. “Myriad, this is Pratt. I’ve got him. He’s alive, he’s conscious. Initiating oxygen transfer. Out.”
She put her faceplate against Adair’s again. “I’m going to turn you around and get you some air.” She tugged on his shoulder, turning him to get at the top of his life support system. He grimaced at her touch: she let go, mumbling unheard apologies. Broken shoulder? His suit suggested that the impact must have been bad: the radio antenna was sheared cleanly off, the sheet metal housing of the life support system was badly dented, and the emergency oxygen socket had almost been knocked inside the housing.
She tried to plug the connector of her suit’s buddy hose into the socket: it went in about half the proper distance, and jammed. She applied more force, bracing Adair with one hand and pressing the connector with the other, and it clicked into place. There was a vicious hiss, and her suit’s oxygen reserve came up in flashing red on the HUD, the minutes counting down so fast that she could hardly read them. Five hours, four hours thirty, four hours… Shouldn’t pressure equalize soon? She looked at Adair’s suit status display. What was his reserve up to now?
Nothing was changing.
Her skin grew tight. Please, no! But there was no other explanation. The tube must have broken when he hit the strut. A safety valve somewhere had protected him from immediate death, but the break was venting her precious oxygen uselessly into space.
“Sorry, Adair. It’s not working.” She reached out and disconnected the buddy hose.
His voice was almost inaudible. “Then let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Myriad… This is Pratt. Adair’s suit is damaged. Unable to transfer oxygen. I’ve lost some oxygen trying but have enough to return. Over.”
“Report your propellant level.”
“I’m at seventy-three percent.” She swallowed. “Is that enough?”
“You’re good for now. But you have very little margin for error. Adjust your heading and stand by to accelerate in two minutes.”
She turned herself until the crosshairs were green again, then braced herself against Adair, his suited body huge and awkward in her arms.
“Accelerate, full thrust, in five. Four. Three. Two. One. Now.”
She started her thrusters. The familiar feeling of weight came back, but this time her arms were full with a load bigger than herself. Under the slow push of the thruster, Adair weighed no more than a baby; but she weighed even less, and his weight was in front of her, tipping her off balance into a slow helpless forward somersault. The stars began to drift upward: the HUD crosshairs followed them and turned red.
The radio crackled. “Pratt! This is Myriad. You are off course. Correct immediately. Acknowledge. Over.”
“Dammit! Don’t you think I know?” Sweat stung her eyes. She adjusted the steering thrusters, to try to cancel the torque. Adair’s spacesuit twisted on the shackle, as if they were wrestling in slow motion. The thrusters hissed behind her. Caught in between, she tried to balance, finally found her equilibrium. She took a deep breath – with a pang of guilt that she could not share it – and chinned the transmit switch. “Sorry. I was a bit stressed for a moment there. I’m back on course.”
“That’s okay,” said Chang. “But I’m concerned about your propellant level. You used a lot just now, and you’re still burning it faster than the computer had predicted. You’re at fifty-two percent. Can you balance without the steering thrusters?”
She ignored the fist of ice that was closing around her heart. “Best I can do.”
“I’m changing the flight plan; you’re going to coast on this leg too, to keep a little reserve to maneuver when you get back. You’ll just be a little later.”
“How much later?”
“About an extra fifteen minutes.”
For another eternity she tried to mediate between the stubborn push of the thrusters and the randomly moving weight of Adair and his suit. He did not seem to be conscious, but every so often he jerked weakly, like Suzanne sometimes did when she was falling asleep. Steering was like balancing a peacock feather on her finger – it required almost no force, but if her attention wavered for an instant the errors would cascade.
Ahead of her, when she could see it, the space station grew, almost imperceptibly slowly. Every so often, as Adair flopped around, she glimpsed his slack blue lips. His blood-oxygen gauge was dropping into the red.
Finally, the order came. “Stand by to kill your thrusters in thirty seconds. Over.”
She swallowed. “Myriad, this is Pratt. That’s a negative. Adair is hardly breathing. We do not have time for the slower trajectory.”
The next voice she heard was the Commander’s. “Pratt, this is Verdi. You are ordered to cut thrusters immediately. Acknowledge. Over.”
She ignored it. She was out here on her own. The laws of physics made her master and commander of her one-woman craft until she stepped back through the airlock. Then the Old Lady could ream her out for disobeying a direct order, confine her to quarters, and send her back to Earth in disgrace; but not until then.
So how fast could she get back? When she’d turned around, the tank had been at seventy-three percent. She could use half of that to accelerate, but no more; then she would need the other half to match velocity again. And she had better keep fuel to get to the airlock with. She looked at the gauge: forty-five percent. Just then it dropped to forty-four.
“Myriad, this is Pratt. I’m killing thrust at thirty-eight percent. Request recomputed flight plan. Over.”
Chang’s voice, in the background: “Commander?”
The Commander, even more faintly: “Give it to her.” Did she sound angry?
Chang, full volume: “Pratt, this is Myriad. Recomputing. Wait one. Out.”
She glanced again at Adair. He was deathly pale, his eyes were closed. A froth of saliva at the corner of his mouth stirred periodically. Come on, we’re almost home.
The gauge dropped to thirty-eight percent; she killed the thrusters. “Myriad, this is Pratt. I am coasting. When do I begin deceleration? Over.”
“You have ninety-five seconds before deceleration. Can you manage that?”
She turned Adair’s head. “Adair! Can you hear me?” His lips moved, but she could hear nothing. “We’re half way back now.”
No time to say more. She turned herself around by hand, awkwardly counter-rotating Adair’s body against her own to save propellant.
“Pratt, this is Myriad. Full thruster deceleration in… Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Now!” Behind her, the thruster roared its response, and once more she began her slow-motion acrobatic performance with Adair. Eighteen percent. Seventeen. Her arms and back ached.
At ten percent, the numerals on the fuel display turned red. Eight percent. Seven percent; but she was almost there. Six percent. Five. The space station was coming towards her, growing visibly as she watched.
Without warning, Adair thrashed out, harder than before, his arms and legs flailing. The force of the convulsion tore him out of her grasp, and twisted her out of line. By the time he went limp again, she was facing the looming Earth. She stopped the main thruster, grasped Adair again, and began reorienting herself.
“Pratt, this is Myriad. Are you having problems?”
“We’re under control. I think.” The head-up display said she was on course again.
She ignited the thruster one more time. It was going to be close.
“Pratt, this is Myriad. Reduce thrust to fifty percent of maximum.”
Before she could do anything, the thruster gave a sputtering cough, and died.
Three times she tried to restart it – twice with voice control, once with the palm switch. Then she spoke into the radio. “Myriad, this is Pratt. We are out of fuel and drifting.” Her voice seemed remote, as if she was speaking at her own funeral. Hey, God? I know you don’t do miracles. But I could sure use a little courage right now…
“Pratt, this is Myriad.” It was the commander’s voice. “Orlov is on his way to bring you in. Stand by and wait for rescue. Or arrest, I have not decided yet.”
She looked at the station slipping relentlessly past. Where was Orlov? Her relative velocity was five point one meters per second, according to the suit’s GPS. Not nearly as fast as Adair had been going; but this time their relative velocity was in the wrong direction, nowhere near the boomerang zone. And Orlov would only have a short-range thruster, and three people’s mass to bring in. If he couldn’t reach them in time, they would be adrift forever.
The station wasn’t sliding past any more, it was shrinking, falling away; and her slow rotation was dragging it off to the side of her faceplate. She tried to do a cat-twist, to keep it in her sight, but she was bone-tired, and Adair’s limp form kept getting in the way. When the station finally disappeared to her left, she had still seen no sign of Orlov. What was wrong? She moved Adair so that she could see his face; his eyes were closed, his breathing almost invisible. There was a comradeship, an odd intimacy, in dying together.
The huge disc of Earth drifted in front of her. Most of it was dark, a circular void in the stars broken by an uneven dusting of gold and silver lights. It was hard to see the lit crescent for the glare of the Sun, but she knew that they were over Asia. Her air would last long enough for her to see North America again, measure a couple finger-widths north from Florida to find Suzanne in Atlanta, spot the ragged tan triangle of desert that marked Wyoming and her family.
Myriad would be coming back into sight again soon. She strained to see around the edge of her faceplate. There it was, shockingly small – but that tiny dot there, yes, that was surely Orlov! She looked at Adair’s slack face, and pressed their helmets together. “Did you see that, Adair? We’ve got us a ride home! And if you dare give up now, I’ll kill you!”
Pratt and Orlov stuffed Adair, as limp as a sack of potatoes, into the one-person airlock. For an eternity they floated, holding the grab bars, as the lock cycled. Finally the light showed green. Orlov opened the door and gestured her in.
A minute later she stepped through the inner door to the sound of cheering; half the crew were gathered in the little airlock vestibule, floating by any available hold like bats in a cave. Adair’s helmet was off, and the medical officer, assisted by one of the technicians, was giving him oxygen. Adair opened his eyes and smiled weakly.
“Hey, Pratt. Thanks f’ the lift,” he said.
“I owed you one,” she said. The air was cold against her face. She wiped sweat out of her eyes, pushed clinging hair away from her forehead. Somebody was helping her undo her suit seals. Laboring like a moulting insect, she wriggled out of the suit.
Behind her, the airlock cycled again. She turned her head; Orlov stepped out and removed his helmet. “So, you are back with us, Adair! I was afraid that you would not make it. Well done, Pratt!”
“Thanks, Orlov,” she said.
The oxygen was bringing color back to Adair’s face. He smiled, sheepishly. “Hey, Pratt – you were right. It can get dangerous out there.”
Adair had been floated off to the sickbay for observation. Pratt took the Commander’s space suit to the storage room, swabbed it out carefully, drained the sump, and disconnected the oxygen bottle and lithium hydroxide scrubber cartridge. The familiar routine was calming. She attached the suit to the wall with shock cord, and reached for the recharging cable.
“Pratt?” It was the Old Lady, her tone so abrupt that Pratt almost stood to attention.
“You disobeyed a direct order out there. This may not be the military, but I am in charge here.”
“I am putting an official reprimand in your record,” Verdi said. “It will, however, go next to the commendation for rescuing Adair. I shall make sure that the commendation is more strongly worded.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Pratt braced to push off.
“Before you go, Pratt. I will have to write a report on this incident, and there’s something that I don’t think I understand yet. For his oxygen to last as long as it did, Adair must have managed to stay calm for a whole orbit, two hours drifting in space with no radio contact. That would not be easy to do.”
Pratt let herself relax a little. “I was fairly sure that he would make it, ma’am.”
“Why were you so sure?”
Why had she been so sure? For a moment she was silent. “Ma’am, when I was a little girl, they used to tell me that when things got tough, faith would get you through. I guess you’ve seen enough of my psych files to know I’m not a very regular member of my church these days, but I still believe that. Sort of, anyhow.”
“But Adair? You don’t think he does?”
Pratt laughed. “Oh, Adair must be about the least religious person I know. But to use the last of his propellant to boost in a completely different direction from the station – not wasting it trying to come straight back when he didn’t have enough – that shows real faith in something. In the laws of physics, at least.”
Verdi nodded. “And in you.”
Boomerang Zone, © 2015 Robert Dawson
Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at a university in Nova Scotia. When he isn’t teaching, doing research, or writing science fiction, he enjoys hiking, cycling, and fencing. He is an alumnus of the Sage Hill and Viable Paradise writing workshops.
Make a wish, digital painting © Karim Fakhoury
Karim Fakhoury is a 23 years old illustrator and designer based in Montreal, Canada. Over the past 7 years, he has essentially turned his passion for the world of visual arts and design into a profession. He specializes in Image Making, Digital Illustrations, and Branding Identity.
In this Feb. 7, 1984 photograph taken by his fellow crewmembers aboard the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger on the STS-41B mission, NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless II approaches his maximum distance from the vehicle. McCandless became the first astronaut to maneuver about in space untethered, during this first “field” tryout of a nitrogen-propelled, hand-controlled backpack device called the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU).
Astronaut with Earth in the background: Image and caption Credit: NASA ” On Feb. 12, 1984, astronaut Bruce McCandless, ventured further away from the confines and safety of his ship than any previous astronaut had ever been. This space first was made possible by a nitrogen jet propelled backpack, previously known at NASA as the Manned Manuevering Unit or MMU.
After a series of test maneuvers inside and above Challenger’s payload bay, McCandless went “free-flying” to a distance of 320 feet away from the Orbiter. This stunning orbital panorama view shows McCandless out there amongst the black and blue of Earth and space.”
Astronaut with Tether: Image and caption Credit: NASA: During the Gemini 4 mission on June 3, 1965, Ed White became the first American to conduct a spacewalk. The spacewalk started at 3:45 p.m. EDT on the third orbit when White opened the hatch and used the hand-held manuevering oxygen-jet gun to push himself out of the capsule.
The EVA started over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii and lasted 23 minutes, ending over the Gulf of Mexico. Initially, White propelled himself to the end of the 8-meter tether and back to the spacecraft three times using the hand-held gun. After the first three minutes the fuel ran out and White maneuvered by twisting his body and pulling on the tether.
In a photograph by Commander James McDivitt taken early in the EVA over a cloud-covered Pacific Ocean, the maneuvering gun is visible in White’s right hand. The visor of his helmet is gold-plated to protect him from the unfiltered rays of the sun.