Bruce McCandless spent 10 years working on the space agency's jetpacks. It payed off Tuesday when he became the first man to fly free from a spaceship 175 miles above Earth.
'That may have been one small step for Neil but it's a heck of a big leap for me,' McCandless told his crewmates and mission controllers in Houston when he began his historic spacewalk at 8:09 a.m. EST.
McCandless was remembering Neil Armstrong's first words -- spoken to him as the mission controller -- when Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969.
Although not talkative during the first four days of the Challenger mission, McCandless bantered with his crewmates and colleagues on the ground during his spacewalk.
'You want the windows washed or anything while I'm out here?' he asked his buddies inside the shuttle.
His excitement and enthusiasm was catching.
'This is neat,' he exclaimed, looking at the world go by beneath his feet. 'Looks like Florida. It is Florida! It is the Cape.'
'We sure have a nice flying machine here,' he said later.
McCandless, 46, had not flown in space before he and four other astronauts blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in the Challenger last Friday. He waited 17 years for his chance and spent the last 10 preparing to fly the jetpacks, called manned maneuvering units.
But he said he did not consider those 17 years 'waiting.'
'Basically, I came down here to participate in the space program and I've been participating in all capacities,' he said.
McCandless spent 11 years in the Navy before joining the astronaut corps in 1966.
He followed his father and grandfather in attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he graduated second in his class of 899 in 1958.
Science, electronics and space had interested McCandless in high school and he considered careers in aviation and submarines. Flying won out.
'About the time I was a first classman or a senior in the Naval Academy, the Soviets launched Sputnik and I realized that we were really on the threshold of the space age rather than something in the 21st century,' McCandless said.
McCandless got his Navy wings in 1960 and served aboard carriers, including the USS Enterprise during its participation in the Cuban blockade.
McCandless, who attained the rank of captain, reported to the Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps Unit at Stanford University, where he received a masters in electrical engineering in 1965.
After joining NASA, McCandless provided support for the Apollo 14 mission and served as backup pilot for the first manned Skylab mission.
At work and at home, McCandless is an electronics buff. He also enjoys photography, scuba diving, swimming and volleyball.
McCandless is married to the former Bernice Doyle of Rahway, N.J. They have two children, Bruce III, 22, and Tracy, 20.