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Astronaut Bruce McCandless was photographed free-floating in space by fellow astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson in 1984. This was the first test of the MMU — the manned maneuvering unit — a self-propelled gizmo that allowed astronauts to work untethered from the space shuttle. Courtesy photo
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Photo book’s mission is celebrating space shuttle program

The ultimate journey, surely, is flying in space.

Just 558 people (300-plus Americans) of the Earth’s 8 billion have had such an adventure.

Maybe one of the most thrilling experiences in space is depicted on page 59 of “The Space Shuttle: A Mission-by-Mission Celebration of NASA’s Extraordinary Spaceflight Program.” The picture is at once both stunning and disturbing.

Taken by astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson in 1984, the photo shows astronaut Bruce McCandless floating in outer space — away from the space station — untethered. The blackness of space is at his back; the Earth at his feet, 170 miles below.

The image is reminiscent of an early scene in the 2013 film “Gravity,” in which George Clooney’s astronaut character purposely cuts his tether and floats away to save Sandra Bullock’s astronaut character.

Fortunately, in McCandless’ case, life does not imitate art.

He had the advantage of an MMU — a manned maneuvering unit — that enabled him to propel himself back to the safety of the space station.

Still, scary stuff, and we’re fortunate to have this photo and 139 others that have been compiled in “The Space Shuttle” by professional photographer Roland Miller, a Chicago native and dean emeritus of the Grayslake Campus of the College of Lake County in Illinois.

This photo shows the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope from the orbiter Discovery in April 1990. Having a telescope in orbit allows us to see places in the universe that are impossible to see from the Earth because of our atmosphere. Courtesy photo

“As a young child in the 1960s, I was mesmerized by America’s space program,” he begins. But like many Americans, he lost interest in the program after the 1969 and 1970 moon landings. It was the launch of the first space shuttle in 1981 that rekindled his attention.

Then, in 1988, Miller was called to Cape Canaveral as a consultant and was drawn to photograph deactivated launch pads.  Later, working with one of the astronauts, he directed a photo shoot of the interior of the space shuttle.

As a result, “I had this idea for a book for a while — the best 100 photos of the space shuttle,” Miller said in a phone interview from his home in Ogden, Utah. “This one is close. We ended up with 140 photos — five free flights and 135 actual launch missions. They are all NASA photographs except one.”

To find those 140 photos, Miller examined “three-quarters of a million to a million photos” from NASA and the National Archives.

“I wanted to go to the archives in person,” he said, “but then COVID hit, and the archives closed.”

That meant Miller spent a lot of time online, looking at photos that were suitable in both content and quality.

Roland Miller, author of “The Space Shuttle,” stands in space shuttle Endeavour’s payload bay in the Orbiter Processing Facility 2 at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Miller, a professional photographer, chose photos for the book from nearly a million in NASA’s files. Courtesy photo

“We treated the book as an object itself,” he said. “I didn’t want to pick just the greatest hits. I tried to strike a balance between best-known and lesser-known images.”

My favorites are those that showcase the astronauts: Gary Harbaugh pulling himself along the handrails on the exterior of the orbiter Endeavor (1993); Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov peering through the window of the Mir Space Station, watching the orbiter Discovery approach (1995); John Olivas, during a spacewalk, repairing a thermal blanket on the orbiter Atlantis (2007).

Miller also wrote the text, which offers plenty of understandable detail and anecdotes to keep the interest of even the non-expert.

Readers get a glimpse into what it takes to build, maintain and repair space-worthy vehicles. And most helpful is the two-page, full-color graphic depicting all the NASA-crewed space flights from 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, to 2011, when the orbiter Atlantis made its last mission to the International Space Station.

Proper tribute also is given the Challenger and Columbia tragedies (1986 and 2003, respectively), which reminds us just how tenuous and complicated these missions into outer space are. Their stories illustrate how the tiniest detail can cause massive destruction and perhaps make us wonder why tragedies aren’t more frequent. 

“If someone doesn’t know about program, this book is a good introduction,” Miller said. “If they do, we get a little beyond the description of each mission.” 

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