#281 Wonders All Around with Bruce McCandless III

This week we spoke to author Bruce McCandless III about his latest book, a a biography of his father, legendary astronaut Bruce McCandless III. Bruce spoke to us about growing up in Houston, the experience of having a parent in the space program, and the process of piecing together his own memories and the fragments of his dad’s life in order to tell his story.

This week we spoke to author Bruce McCandless III about his latest book, Wonders All Around, a biography of his father, legendary astronaut Bruce McCandless II. Most of us have seen the iconic photo below of Bruce McCandless II in the world’s first untethered space flight, taken in 1984, but we may not know the story of the man behind the picture.

  • Bruce spoke to us about growing up in Houston and the experience (and challenges) of having a father in the space program
  • He explains why he decided not to pursue a career as an astronaut and how he transitioned from a career in law to writing books
  • McCandless also explains how the book came to be, and why he felt it was time to tell his father’s story. He shares some insights about the process of piecing together his memories, and researching his dad’s life – learning stories he had never heard before
  • He also tells us the story behind the famous photo, why it had such a strong impact, and what it meant to his fathe

Bruce McCandless III grew up in the shadow of Houston’s Johnson Space Center during the Apollo and Skylab eras. He graduated from the Plan II Honors Program of the University of Texas in 1983 and went on to earn degrees from the University of Reading in England and the University of Texas School of Law. After teaching at Saint David’s School in New York City, he returned to Austin to practice law and retired as general counsel of Superior HealthPlan in 2019. He is the author of Sour Lake (2011), Beatrice and the Basilisk (2014), and, with his daughter Carson, Carson Clare’s Trail Guide to Avoiding Death (And Other Unpleasant Consequences) (2017). Bruce serves on the board of directors of the Worthy Garden Club, an Oregon-based environmental organization, and the Austin Public Library Foundation. He and his wife, Patricia Fuller McCandless, live in Austin.

Author website

Wonders All Around

That’s me in the picture: Bruce McCandless, 47, in the world’s first untethered space flight, February 1984

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Episode Transcript

Transcription provided by Speechpad

Joni: Hey, writers. You’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Joni, author engagement specialist at Kobo Writing Life.

Rachel: And I am Rachel, author engagement coordinator at Kobo Writing Life. Today, on the podcast, we are speaking to Bruce McCandless III, who is the author of the biography, Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II. Now, if you’re not familiar with the name Bruce McCandless, you have definitely seen the image. It is a super famous picture of an astronaut sitting in what looks like a chair, floating, tethered to nothing above planet Earth.

Joni: This was a such a great interview. It was a little bit different, I think, to anything that we’ve done before because we’ve never talked to somebody whose dad was an astronaut. But, yeah, it was really great. Bruce spoke to us about the process of writing this because it’s part his own memories of his family and what it was like growing up, but also the story of his dad. So we talked about the process of writing, of researching, of weaving his own memories in with these stories about his father.

And he also writes fiction. So we spoke to him a little bit about his general publishing journey, what he’s got coming down the pipeline. And we talked a lot about space, which was very cool.

We are here today with Bruce McCandless III, author of his latest book, “Wonders All Around.” Thank you so much for joining us.

Bruce: Oh, you’re very welcome. I’m happy to be here.

Joni: Can you start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and about “Wonders All Around”?

Bruce: I sure can. My name is Bruce McCandless III, as you mentioned. I grew up near Johnson Space Center down in Houston. My dad was an astronaut with the program and so I grew up in Clear Lake and went to high school there. I went off to university at the University of Texas, studied abroad for a year and a half, came back, and went to law school. I practiced law for 25 years or so. And then, sort of, I’m retired. I guess I’d say I’m semi-retired. I still have my law license and still consult on some things. But primarily, I’m writing these days. And I’ve written mostly fiction and a fair number of poems and features over the years.

But my first big sort of nonfiction project is “Wonders All Around,” which was published back in July. It’s a story of my dad’s career and, in particular, about our family, and a little bit about the space program and it’s evolution during the ’60s and ’70s, and a little bit into the ’80s as well, as sort of the backdrop for that.

And I don’t know if you had a chance to look at it, but it’s a little bit different from, you know, most astronaut biographies. There are lots of astronaut biographies. This one is a little bit more person-centered, a little bit more focused on family and relationships and that sort of thing, and maybe a little less technical than some of the other ones.

Rachel: For those listeners who are unfamiliar, could you kind of tell us who your father is and a little bit about him and his career?

Bruce: I sure can. So the book is titled “Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space.” And one of the taglines is, “Meet the man you never knew you knew.” And the reason we came up with that, it’s because a lot of people have seen the photograph of Bruce McCandless II operating what’s called the Manned Maneuvering Unit, which is a gas-powered jetpack. And you may have seen that photo that was taken back in 1984 by astronaut Hoot Gibson of Bruce McCandless II floating free in space. But he’s not really floating. He’s actually using compressed gas to propel himself, but he’s out there by himself in space.

And the photograph is pretty compelling. And it’s sort of become an iconic photograph of the space program and one of NASA’s most requested images. That’s Bruce McCandless II. He also worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, which we can get into a little bit more as we go along.

Joni: It’s an amazing photo. We’ll include it in the notes so that everyone can see. You mentioned the book, the memoir, is quite a personal story. And I really enjoyed the kid POV, and I like…and I think you captured a moment in American history, but also a very specific place that you were in as a child. What was it like growing up in Houston with a dad in the space program? What was that like for your family?

Bruce: You know, it differed over time. When my dad was selected for the program, astronauts were still sort of these golden boys in the American media and were getting lots of attention and were seen as heroes by a lot of folks. And so, there was a lot of fanfare attended upon my dad’s selection of being in the Group 5 astronaut class. You know, these were the guys who were going to go to the moon. These were the Apollo astronauts who had been chosen. And it was exciting.

But after the success of the Apollo program, in particular Apollo 11, a lot of the enthusiasm sort of dwindled in the American public and, certainly, in the American Congress. Funding was cut and the space program’s ambitions sort of became less exciting.

And so, for me, growing up, my dad had never went up on an Apollo flight, as it turned out. He didn’t get the sort of attention that, you know, guys like Fred Haise and Pete Conrad and Neil Armstrong and those guys got. So, our childhood was pretty ordinary, really. I mean, the whole community where I live was full of engineers and astronauts and NASA technicians. And everyone was sort of, not everyone…but the majority of folks were involved with the space program in one way or another. So there was nothing really special about that connection.

So, you know, I’d say it was pretty much, you know, a normal American childhood. As you will see in the book, we did, you know, road trips with various degrees of family disharmony. And we were, you know, dysfunctional in all the ways that American families are. You know, I had long hair as a kid. My dad was a Navy fighter pilot who thought that was ridiculous. You know, I wore jeans with holes in them and didn’t want to mow the lawn and stuff. So, some of this stuff is, I think…you know, some of the story is relatable, I hope, to folks out there.

And then, when I get into the spaceflights, I have to be a little bit more technical. And that may not be quite as, you know, maybe not quite as relatable, but I hope, by then, you’ve got some momentum going into the story that you carried along. So I hope that’s an answer.

Joni: Yeah, for me, like, as a non-technical person, I liked that it was more of a personal story. I found that a lot easier to read. I don’t know if I would have had the patience to continue if it had been very, very technical. So I liked that a lot. I like the personal part.

Something I thought was interesting was you were talking about what it was like for the wives of astronauts, and how challenging, like how they would sort of live afraid that their husbands would come back from space and that would change the dynamic.

Bruce: Yeah, right. So they were scared when their husbands, you know, when they went up. And there were some tension evolving when they came back down safely. Because, you know, spaceflight is a huge high for a lot of people. And if you’ve been working toward it for years, and you become suddenly the center of national attention, and you come back down, and you realize, “Hey, I might not get another flight for years or I may not get another flight at all,” there’s a pretty well documented sort of depression that sets in or deflation. And that was the cause of problems for a lot of married couples at NASA, you know, astronaut couples.

And generally speaking, you know, the astronaut wives were sort of a heroic bunch, you know, mostly unheralded. You know, all the astronauts have memorial trees at the Johnson Space Center. But really, there should be a special grove for the wives as well because they put up with a lot and suffered a lot and worked really hard, you know, to raise the families and, you know, while their famous husbands were away back in the ’60s and ’70s.

You know, it’s all a lot different now because men and women both are going up, and, you know, there’s equality, which is great. But back then, women were expected to do the work and smile. And it was pretty unfair. And my mom was one of those women. I think she deserved a lot of credit, frankly.

Joni: Did you feel any pressure to go into the space program yourself or to do anything like that?

Bruce: You know, I really didn’t. And, in fact, I don’t know of any of the offspring of astronauts who have become astronauts themselves. I mean, it’s not easy to become an astronaut, for one thing. But there are a few who sort of gone into the space industry, generally. But I didn’t feel that way. I just wasn’t interested in the same things that my dad was when he was a kid.

I mean, he grew up, in the age of around 10, wanting to go into space and being fascinated by science fiction and rocket propulsion, that sort of thing. And, you know, I was fascinated by the Rolling Stones and stuff. I never had the same ambition that he did, you know. So I went to the University of Texas and studied English and history. And, you know, he was a kid of the Naval Academy and was much more focused than I ever was.

So, and to his credit, I mean, his feeling was, “You know, if you’re not interested in it and motivated, you’re not going to be good at it. So, don’t feel like you have to go to the Naval Academy or try to go into the military just to please me because no one’s gonna be happy if you go and you don’t like it and you’re not able to make a career out of it.” So, he was pretty sensible about it.

I mean, I think there was a brief period, when I was a sophomore in college, when I was interested. And he was pretty excited and, you know, wrote to Senator Phil Gramm, in those days and was starting to do some lobbying for me. So I appreciate that.

But in the end, I think, it was the right decision. I don’t think I would have been good in the military or good in the astronaut program. So, I think the federal government dodged a bullet when I decided not to do it.

Rachel: I’m kind of curious about your journey from lawyer to writer because we’ve had a lot of authors on this podcast who started their careers in law and then eventually made their way into writing. I’m just kind of curious what that journey was like for you.

Bruce: Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, being a lawyer necessarily involves writing and speaking and listening. And, you know, I did a fair amount of litigation in my legal career. And really, that’s tremendously writing intensive. And so, you sort of feel at times, depending on what kind of law you do, that you are a writer. You know, you’re writing for judges, or you’re writing for appellate courts, or you’re writing for your clients, or you’re writing to opposing counsel, and you’re trying to make a point. And then a lot of times, you’re trying to tell a story.

So the professions are related, I would say. I mean, I’m not sure that being a lawyer necessarily helps in terms of writing fiction. Because, as a lawyer, you’re constantly being asked to simplify and structure things. And that’s not always how fiction works. But it probably does help in terms of nonfiction.

I mean, you know, as a lawyer, you’re always thinking about, “How do I prove this? What’s my evidence for this? What can I draw upon in support of this opinion?” So I’d say it’s a pretty natural transition from practicing law to at least writing nonfiction.

What’s the big issue, the big problem, is that as a lawyer, it takes up a lot of your time, obviously, if you’re doing it right. And it takes up a lot of your mental bandwidth and your emotional bandwidth, because you get involved with people’s problems. And it’s hard to disengage from that. You know, you carry a lot of that stress around with you.

And so, being a lawyer, it can be rewarding, but it can be kind of disruptive, frankly. A lot of lawyers feel like they have to solve people’s problems. And those problems aren’t always solvable. Because, sometimes, the problems are the people themselves. So that maybe more than you want to know about legal practice.

Joni: And how did this book come to be? Like, how did you decide that you wanted to tell your father’s story?

Bruce: Well, yeah, so, and that’s another good question. You know, my dad was, he was sort of the ultimate do-it-yourself guy, didn’t particularly trust journalists, or lawyers, for that matter, didn’t really trust journalists. And he was approached, over the course of his career, about writing an autobiography or writing his memoirs. And a couple of pretty well-established journalists actually offered to help and get involved.

And he always said no. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. I think, for a while, he didn’t really think his story was worth telling. I think he was worried that if he started looking back, he wasn’t gonna be able to accomplish things that he wanted to accomplish going forward. He was always focused on what he wanted to do next. And I think, also, that he wanted to do it himself. And he wasn’t exactly sure how to get started. I mean, he wasn’t big on narrative in the first place.

But toward the end of his life, when he was… You know, he died at the age of 80. But right there, at the end of his life, he sort of changed his mind and decided, “Yeah, maybe it is a good idea to go ahead and write my story.” And he picked out a title and sort of started working on it. But he was in fairly poor health by that time and died in December of 2017, without having had much of a chance to tell the story.

So I decided to do it for him. I mean, as you know, to make a long story short, it turns out that he was sort of his own archivist. He had kept all kinds of things in the place where he and my mom lived up in Colorado. He had literally rooms full of files. And so, as I started going through those, I realized, “Hey, that, you know, a lot of those stories here in these documents and photographs and letters…”

And that’s sort of how it got started. And it became a bigger and bigger project. I started out just for writing an essay about his death. And it got bigger from there.

Rachel: What was the research process like? Like learning about your dad in this way, going through his files, did you learn anything new about him while you were doing this?

Bruce: I did, yeah. You know, one thing is, you know, my dad, like a lot of military guys and pilots, was pretty tight-lipped about his life. He didn’t like to dramatize his experience and things. So reading contemporaneous letters and files was pretty enlightening about some of the battles he had at NASA in terms of getting his projects approved.

Maybe the most interesting thing was finding this old file that the Navy had created to investigate an accident related to my dad. He was flying an A-4 Skyhawk back in 1961, I think. He was a young pilot. He brought the Skyhawk in for a landing on the USS Forrestal.

And, as you may know, there’s a tail hook on the plane. And it’s meant to catch an arresting wire. And that’s the way they slow these planes down. You know, it’s kind of a primitive deal, where literally part of the plane catches on a wire. But that’s how it worked in the old days.

And he came in for a landing and the arresting wire literally ripped the tail hook off the back of the plane. And so he didn’t stop. He kept rolling, you know, toward the end of the runway, didn’t have enough speed to take off again. So he had to engage the afterburner on the plane, which is basically, you know, revving up to full jet power, and get off the deck and climb as quickly as he could.

And as he was climbing, you know, the radio, the guy’s back on the ship, radioed to him that his plane was on fire. And he looked back. And sure enough, there was a huge plume of fire coming off the back of the plane. So there’s this whole nerve-racking story about how he was trying to get the canopy open so he could eject and couldn’t get it open and realizing the plane could explode at any moment. And he finally manages to rip the canopy open and eject, and, you know, parachutes into the Mediterranean. The plane goes down in flames. And, of course, none of this was ever communicated to us.

Joni: So, you didn’t know the story at all, or you just didn’t know the fine details?

Bruce: I didn’t know that. You know, a couple times when my mom would prod him, he’d say, “Oh, yeah, at one point, I had to bail out of my airplane.” That’s about as far as he ever got. But this file had it all, you know, witness statements, and his own statement. And the Navy, you know, opens up this investigation. And for six months, he’s on pins and needles waiting to see if the Navy is going to say it was his fault. He didn’t think it was his fault, of course.

But the Navy came back said, “No, there was some sort of fault in the fuselage or the crack in the fuselage. And you know, you didn’t come in too fast. It was just a mechanical problem.” So, he was exonerated, and his career was saved. But I’m sure that waiting for the results of that investigation were almost as excruciating as the incident itself.

But that’s sort of an example. That’s probably the most extreme example of knowing the outlines of a story, but, you know, being able to fill in the blanks, as a result of documentary evidence.

Joni: Was it a challenge because the book is not just your father’s story, it is yours also? How was it for you kind of weaving your own memories? Which are sometimes, especially when your child, is sometimes quite different to what your dad would have remembered How did you find that?

Bruce: Yeah, I think it’s a good point. I think it is quite different. And I’m not sure that I’m right all the time, you know, because I am writing, at times, from the perspective of an 8-year-old or a 12-year-old or a 16-year-old. And we all know that human memory is a fallible thing. I mean, one thing you learn when you’re a lawyer is people remember things different ways. And they tend to remember them in different ways. Those ways, I remember, tend to diverge as time goes by.

So you know, I’m not sure I’m always right in the way I perceive things, and I certainly I remembered them differently than my dad would have. But they’re still pretty vivid. The memories are still pretty vivid to me.

And, you know, at some point, if you’re writing in first person, you have to go with it. You have to say, “Look, you know, this is a little bit impressionistic.” But life is impressionistic. And as long as you’re willing to acknowledge that maybe the truth is in the middle there somewhere, I think it’s all fair game. Anyway, I think I got it mostly right.

My sister, on occasion, says, “I don’t remember that happening.” And, you know, but she remembers things happening that I don’t remember happening. So who knows?

Rachel: Oh, yeah. I have these conversations with my siblings a lot, too.

Joni: Same

Rachel: Nobody remembers the same things.

Bruce: Yeah. So what I remember… I mean, we went on a trip to see the launch of Apollo 17 in December of 1972. And, you know, I’m sure my mom would have remembered… My mom passed away in 2014. I’m sure she remembered, would have I remembered or would have said she remembered different things about the trip than I do.

But I remember having to listen to bird calls, tapes, you know, as we drove through Louisiana, and the fact that I had $6 in my wallet, and I considered myself a wealthy man and stuff like that. So, and I’m sure my dad’s mind was on technical things like, you know, the launch window and what the mission was going to do when it got to the moon and that kind of thing. So, for what it’s worth, yeah. I mean, it is a little impressionistic. I didn’t know how else to write the story, frankly, to make it make sense.

Rachel: Were there any instances where you remembered a specific event so vividly and then, in your research, realized that your memory was fallible and that you did not have it correct at all in your brain?

Bruce: You know, I’m sure there was, but I can’t bring one to mind right now. I mean, the big thing is stuff that as a kid I thought just sort of happened seamlessly, it turns out, was a…it could have gone many different ways.

Like, you know, my dad’s whole deal with the jetpack. You know, from my perspective as a kid, it all seemed like it was going exactly as planned, you know, that my dad was working on it and making progress, and NASA was happy with it, and eventually it was going to be flown, and that sort of thing.

But it turned out, looking at the documents, that, you know, just like any project in a big organization, they went forward, the project, you know, moved forward, then went back, and then was cancelled, and then, you know, was refunded. And so, there was so much going on behind the scenes that I didn’t know about.

I mean, that was surprising to me. You sort of read some of these memos back and forth about, you know, why we needed to use this jetpack and what the advantages were, and how it worked, and why NASA was reluctant to do it, and that kind of things. So that’s the biggest thing. I can’t remember anything that was outright wrong about. I just sort of had a different sense of how things came to be. That might be the best way to say it.

Joni: It makes sense. I’m interested, you said your dad had picked out the title for the memoir he would have written. Did you stick with the title, you and your publishers?

Bruce: I didn’t, no. His title was Untethered. And, you know, Untethered: The Story of Bruce McCandless, But, you know, it has kind of an appeal to it, but, I mean, he was not an untethered person. I mean, he, in some ways, was very tethered. He was very tethered.

You know, he came from a line of naval officers and felt duty-bound to sort of carry on that tradition. He was, in other ways, as well, very tradition minded. He was very careful to uphold the standards of being an officer in the Navy. He paid his taxes. He voted. He was not untethered. He was not Jack Kerouac, you know, roaming across the American Southwest.

So, despite that photograph, he was a tethered individual. And so, I briefly considered calling it fearless because he was a fearless individual. I never saw him scared of anything. But there are other books with that or a similar title. And it didn’t seem to me to capture some of the sort of other dimensions of his character.

He was fearless. He was a pilot. You know, someone capable of landing a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier at night, which requires a certain amount of fearlessness. But he was also a scientist. And he was interested in all kinds of things, like animal rehabilitation and environmentalism and geology. And so the title that eventually we came up with was “Wonders All Around,” to sort of give a sense of someone who wasn’t just about bravado but was also about curiosity, and, you know, for lack of a better term, a sense of wonder about things.

Joni: Did he talk to you much about what it was like? Because you’ve mentioned him being an environmentalist and a conservationist, what was it like for him to see the world from the vantage point of space? Did he talk about that?

Bruce: Yeah, I think, for him, and for lots of the astronauts, you know, maybe not all, but the majority, I think it’s a huge object lesson, environmental concern, because, you know, they get up there… And William Shatner is a great example, too. You know, they sent Captain Kirk up on a SpaceX mission here last week, and he came down, and from what I can tell, was moved to tears by the experience. Being up there and seeing Earth from space lets you experience the fact that the Earth is not very big, and the universe is extremely big. And it’s unclear exactly why it is we deserved this little home with water and atmosphere and nearby sun.

And you’re sort of moved to think, we got to take care of this thing. Somehow or other, we won the golden ticket, you know, as a species, and we’ve got to start thinking more seriously about how the Earth works, and how we can keep it working for us.

So, he definitely had that experience, and would mention it, whenever he gave a talk. You know, after his spaceflights, he was always very careful to sort of include a little environmental lesson in there. You know, like a lot of folks who grew up in the ’70s, he liked to refer to Spaceship Earth, that was a pretty common trope for a while. And the idea being that we’re all astronauts on Spaceship Earth, and we need to…because he was an engineer, he always spoke in terms of, you know, maintaining the spaceship systems or valves and the currents, and that kind of thing.

You know, so he spoke about it a little bit differently than I would, or we all would, maybe. But he took it very seriously. And, like I said, he was environmentally concerned his whole life. He and my mother were both big into environmental issues.

Rachel: Do you have any desire to see Earth from that vantage point now that we are sending civilians to space in some capacity?

Bruce: Oh, yeah, I’d go in a minute. Yeah. I mean, and it seems like, you know, at this point with… Oh, you know, I guess it wasn’t a SpaceX rocket. I guess it was the Blue Origin he went up with. I’m sorry, it was Jeff Bezos’ company that William Shatner went up with.

Yeah, I mean, both of those companies, or even Richard Branson’s outfit, yeah, I’d go up if given a chance. I mean, to a certain extent, you know, going up on a on a Blue Origin mission, current time, is sort of like an amusement park ride. You know, it’s all automated. You blast off, you go up, you know, 60 miles or so, and then you come back down just a few minutes.

But I think it’s enough. I mean, I think it’d be fantastic to see Earth from that vantage point. And I can understand why people say that space tourism is going to be a big business one of these days. It would be great.

Joni: I wanted to ask you about this photograph, this really, really iconic photograph that everyone has seen. I think I understood it as, originally, they were kind of grainy pictures. And then NASA later released this really beautiful high-definition photo. Is that right?

Bruce: Yeah, so I was in grad school in England at the time. And I remember watching, you know, news coverage of the flight over there, the mission over there, and seeing my dad, you know, venture out. He and Bob Stewart both tested the MMU on that flight. And it was cool, but, you know, it was pretty grainy video footage. And it was hard to tell exactly what was going on at times.

And as you mentioned, it was only after the astronauts came back to Earth and the NASA technicians started developing the film from the photographs they took that they realized what a gem Hoot Gibson had captured, you know, while the MMU test was going on.

You know, he had a Hasselblad camera that didn’t have automatic focusing controller and that sort of thing. So he had to do everything himself. And he managed to get this, actually more than one, but one particularly great shot of my dad testing the MMU. It’s in perfect focus. The colors are super vivid. And you get the strong sense that this guy, the MMU, the Manned Maneuvering Unit, is…you know, you can’t see how close he is to the shuttle. You just get the impression he’s out there in space, floating by himself, and the nearest human being could be 150 miles away or 1000 miles away. You know, you just can’t tell.

And so I spent some time in the book talking about why that photograph is so effective and what sorts of emotions it evokes, even aside from just the sort of visceral, “Good lord, what is that person doing out there?” kind of reaction. I compare it to Renaissance frescoes of angels, and that sort of thing. And it maybe a little overblown. But who knows?

I mean, it’s a very effective and very moving photograph. And it shows up all over the place. I mean, you can still find people wearing yoga pants with that print and, you know, find beer koozies, and refrigerator magnets, and posters, and all kinds of things. So, it turned out to be a great shot.

Joni: When did you and your family realize how ubiquitous this shot was? It must have been weird for your dad to see his face everywhere like that and not even his face.

Bruce: I think he was really gratified by it. As I talked about in the book, he hit some tough times at NASA. You know, when he started with the astronaut corps, he was the youngest astronaut in that Group 5. He was actually the youngest astronaut, period, for a while. And he was kind of a prodigy. You know, he was a brilliant scientist, a fighter pilot. He was the capsule communicator for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they walked on the moon. And it seemed like his career was really on exactly the sort of trajectory he’d always hoped for.

And then, as I talked about in the book, he sort of got crossways with some of the folks at NASA and his career was effectively derailed. And he labored in obscurity for many years, and was disappointed, and, you know, finally got a shot with the MMU on a shuttle mission. And, lo and behold, you know, that photograph of him becomes this huge, iconic image. And I called it the accidental icon. I mean, no one knew that was gonna happen.

But yeah, he loved it. I mean, he was very gratified and like being the guy in the MMU, and talking about that with kids, and showing off the picture. So, yeah, it was gratifying.

And I’m still amazed by… You know, my wife and I were driving down the Gulf Freeway in Houston not too long ago. And then we were passed by a furniture store delivery truck that had a big image of my dad in the MMU, you know. I’m not sure what that had to do with furniture delivery, but it’s always interesting to see the way people use that image.

Rachel: I just want to get back to writing the book for a second. Your dad had obviously accomplished a lot, a lot of stories. How did you decide what to include in the book? Did you find any challenges trying to pare it down to book size?

Bruce: Yeah, I did. I mean, he got involved in all kinds of NASA projects. And some of them are more interesting than others. I mean, there’s a whole… You know, he worked on the Inertial Upper Stage for many years. And, you know, that’s an interesting project and very useful for NASA, but it’s not something most people are interested in.

So, I really focused on the two big projects – the Manned Maneuvering Unit, which was, again, the jetpack, and his work on the Hubble Space Telescope. You know, my dad and another astronaut, Kathy Sullivan, along with the engineers out at Lockheed in California, including Ron Sheffield. And those guys worked really hard to make sure that the Hubble Space Telescope could be serviced in space, you know, maintained. So that if anything went wrong, the astronauts could go up and fix it, you know. They made sure to have adequate access to the instruments on board and made sure to develop the tools that will allow astronauts to effectively maintain the little satellite.

And it all worked out really well. As you know, Hubble, initially was considered a little bit of a dud because the main mirror had been manufactured incorrectly. But the plus, you know, the good thing that came out of that is the astronauts were able to go up and fix it. And I think there were five or six servicing missions all together, that combined, have led to Hubble being in orbit now for 31 years and sending back some really fantastic science and imagery. You know, some people say it’s the most important scientific instrument ever developed. And so, he was proud of that photograph of him in the MMU, but I think he was even prouder of the work he did on Hubble.

Yeah, so those are the two big ones. I think those are the projects that people are really interested in. And my dad went on to work for Lockheed Martin for something like 24 years and worked on a bunch of space projects there, too. But, you know, it’s the astronaut stuff, I think, people like hearing about. And so that’s what I focused on.

Joni: Yeah, definitely. It’s very inspiring to read about, I think. It’s just he accomplished so much. It’s incredible.

Bruce: I think it is inspiring. Again, he wasn’t an untethered. He was tethered to his work. I mean, and he loved his work and managed to get a lot done. But again, it wasn’t all success story. There was a lot of hardship and disappointment for many years in the middle of all that.

So I tried to bring that out and to humanize him. So that, you know, this wasn’t just a guy who wandered in off the street and was able to go fly the MMU. He put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into that project. And I think he deserves some recognition.

Rachel: Did you learn anything really surprising about your dad during all of your research?

Bruce: You know, one thing I learned that was a little bit surprising is that he put so much energy into animal rehabilitation. When I was a kid, during the ’70s, when he didn’t really have any much going on at NASA in terms of, you know, spaceflights and that sort of thing, he really put his heart and soul into rescuing and healing injured wildlife, especially birds.

And he and my mom both spent a lot of time on that and enlisted my sister and me as well. We had to go down to the lake every night with a big straining net and catch fish and shrimp to feed the birds. And he kept these pretty detailed notes about all that stuff. And it was pretty fascinating reading through his notes about, you know, the injured loon or nighthawk and what he was feeding them. And how he let the screech owls go at night.

I was sort of aware of all that stuff as it was happening, but it didn’t get really the sort of scientific attention he was paying to all that. And so, really, his bird rehabilitation notes was pretty fascinating.

Rachel: That’s really cool. Are you an animal person now? Or did that turn you off owning pets?

Bruce: Yes. No, we have dogs. And I like animals fine. But no one’s brought me a loon to rehabilitate. So I’ve dodged the bullet. I’m actually going to a big Audubon Society thing tomorrow night, where I’m going to meet up with some of my dad’s old friends. And that should be fun. I’m going to bring the bird book along just to show people. And we can reminisce a little bit about all that stuff. So I’m an environmentalist. I’m a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, but I’m not as dedicated as my mom and dad were.

Joni: I’d love to touch briefly on the other books that you’ve written. You’ve written a lot of fiction. You’ve written some poetry. And then this book came out in July. Do you have anything in the pipeline coming up or you could [inaudible 00:34:04]?

Bruce: Yeah. So Wonders came out in July. And then, you know, coincidentally, I had this novel called “In the Land of Dead Horses,” which is sort of a sequel to a novel I wrote back 10 years or so ago called “Sour Lake.” They’re both sort of, I’d call it “The X-Files” meets “Lonesome Dove,” or X-Files meets Indiana Jones. They’re set in Texas in the early years of the 20th century. And they involve a Texas law man who’s dealing with series murders and trying to solve them and dealing with possibly supernatural threats as well.

So that one, I had written that, and completed it about a year ago, but it took a long time to get to the publication process. And that just came out in mid-September. And so, I’ve been doing a little bit of promotion on that as well.

And what I have in the pipeline, I’ve been writing sort of a long nonfiction piece about…it’s called “Pluto Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: The Long and Strange History of Our Search for Planet Next.” And it’s all about the possible existence of a so-called Planet Nine in our solar system. As you may know, some astronomers think there’s another planet out there beyond Pluto and beyond Neptune. And there’s a very energetic search going on for it.

But in the midst of all this, there’s also debate about what a planet is, and who gets to define it. And, as you may know, the International Astronomers Union, the IAU, demoted Pluto to the status of dwarf planet back in 2006. And so saying there’s a Planet Nine out there assumes that you agree with the IAU definition that Pluto is not the ninth planet and is a dwarf planet.

And so the essay is all about this sort of fight over terminology at the same time as we’re looking for this new object out there that some people think exist. That may be more information than you wanted. And I’m also working on another of these books about the Texas law man in the early years of the 20th century. So those are my big projects in the works.

Rachel: First off, I would just like to say that Pluto will always be a planet in my heart. I don’t care what anybody else says.

Bruce: That’s right.

Rachel: I’m just curious how your writing process differs from writing fiction to writing nonfiction? Is it relatively similar? Do you plot out your fiction more?

Bruce: Yeah, the older I get, the more I find that I have to plot it out. But it is similar because, in my fiction, I do try to stick with the facts as they existed in a given time period and be consistent and true to those facts, you know, in terms of historical backdrop. So there’s a fair amount of research involved as well, so similar processes.

I have to say, I’m not a very methodical person. I wish I were a little bit more like my dad, for example. But, you know, I try to get up in the morning and write for two or three hours, and then maybe in the afternoon, do some research or do whatever else I need to. But I’m pretty slow, I gotta say, I wish I were a better and more consistent writer and researcher.

Joni: So we will include links. It’ll be easy to find your books, I think. But in terms of this essay, when it comes out, how will readers be able to access that? Do you know where it will be?

Bruce: Yeah, so I’m hoping I can get it to the point where, you know, I think I’ve got about 12,000 words now, maybe a little bit longer. But I’m hoping to get it to where it’s like 20,000, 25,000 words, and I can actually publish it as a small book. Maybe just as an e-book. And the reason I say that is because, you know, science evolves and especially these days in astronomy, I’m worried that if I publish something in paper, it’ll be out of date, you know, the week afterwards. So I think an e-book for that one.

But I can certainly let you know, I would say it’s probably six months away, at present. The fiction is probably similar period of time. Yeah.

Joni: Yeah, awesome. Yeah, please do let us know. And we’ll…

Bruce: So I’ve got sort of a pretty rough version of the essay up on medium.com right now. But it’s something that I’m not sort of trying to promote. It’s sort of a place marker for people who can go and maybe proofread or read this, you know, verify that the science is right, and that sort of thing. I wouldn’t consider that a finished product at all. It’s just sort of a set of notes more than anything else.

Joni: Yeah. And we’d love to hear about any books that you particularly enjoy. Do you have a favorite book of all time?

Bruce: Oh, man, that’s a tough one. You know, so I really love “Catch-22” And I have to say, it’s been a long time since I looked at it. You know, it’s kind of a weird book to love because it’s a violent, you know, dystopian sort of book, but I love Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” And I love a book called “Six Frigates” by Ian Toll about the American Navy’s, you know, attempts to build, for that day, these very advanced warships and to compete with the British. It’s just a brilliant book.

So that would be probably number one on my nonfiction list, along with the Son of the Rising Star, which is about George Custer, and the book that Erik Larson wrote about the Lusitania. What is that? “Dead Wake,” I think that’s called. Just right off the bat, I’d say those are five of my favorite books. Is that too many? I get a lot of them.

Rachel: That’s perfect. I have to ask because I am a huge sci-fi fan. And your books have some sci-fi elements. And obviously, you grew up around a lot of actual science. Do you have a favorite fictional space explorer?

Bruce: Gosh, you know, Buck Rogers, maybe. I mean, that sounds funny. But I have a big book of the sort of a collection of the old Buck Rogers comic strips and they’re really… I mean, you start out reading them, and they’re quaint because Buck Rogers, you know, he’s overcome by some sort of nerve gas in 1919, I think it is. And he falls asleep in a mine in Pennsylvania, of all places, and he wakes up, you know, five centuries later. And he emerges to find that America is now ruled by some sort of Asian… It’s hard to say, if it’s China or Mongolia or someplace.

But anyway, they were ruled by foreign overlords. And people get around by using these anti-gravity belts and you’re like, “Oh, this is funny.” But as the strip goes on, it gets weirder and weirder. And over the years…and I spent many hours puzzling over it when I was a kid. So even though Buck Rogers wouldn’t have considered himself an explorer, I think I’d still consider him one of my favorite space adventurers, if that counts.

Rachel: It definitely counts. That’s an excellent answer.

Bruce: Okay.

Rachel: Well, this has been great. Thank you so, so much for doing it. I really enjoyed this interview.

Bruce: I’ve had a blast, too. I hope I haven’t rambled on too much. But you guys had some good questions, so I appreciate that.

Joni: No, I could have listened to you for hours, so this was great. Thank you.

Rachel: Yeah, this is great. Thank you so much.

Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up Bruce’s book, we will include a link in our show notes. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe, and tell all your friends. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com and be sure to follow us on social. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.

Joni: This episode was produced by Rachel Warden and Joni Di Placido, editing is by Kelly Rowbotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker. And huge thanks to Bruce McCandless III for being our guest today. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey, sign up for free at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.

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