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Photo of untethered astronaut floating in space is altered

January 14, 2022 GMT

CLAIM: An image shows astronaut Bruce McCandless II floating untethered in space, above a mountain range on Earth.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Altered photo. While the top half of the image featuring McCandless floating in space is real, the bottom half has been altered to add the mountains. A photographer who originally spliced the two images together confirmed that it is altered, and NASA also confirmed that the image spreading on social media did not come from the agency.

THE FACTS: Social media users are sharing an altered photo of McCandless floating untethered above the Earth. McCandless became the first astronaut to fly freely in space during the STS-41-B mission in 1984.

“Insane picture of astronaut Bruce McCandless II, the first person to conduct an untethered free flight in space,” reads one tweet sharing the image, which has been retweeted more than 5,500 times and has received more than 50,000 likes.

But the image has been edited to add a mountain landscape below McCandless.

The original image of McCandless floating above the Earth was taken in February, 1984, when he was one of the first to test-pilot a jet propelled backpack called the manned maneuvering unit or MMU. McCandless was the first to fly untethered with the MMU, traveling 320 feet away from the space shuttle Challenger. A fellow crew member inside the spacecraft took the photograph, according to NASA.

However, the portion of Earth in the original picture does not include any mountains.

This altered image was first posted online by Canadian photographer Tianxiao Zhang in 2011, with a caption reading: “I shot the earth part in this photo, Bruce is from this image.”

Zhang confirmed to The Associated Press that the photo of the mountains was taken during a flight from Toronto to Beijing in 2009. Zhang said in an email that it was probably taken above Yukon or Alaska.

Zhang noted that the perspective of the combined image would be “physically impossible,” since commercial flights cruise at around a 6 mile range. NASA says the Challenger orbited at an altitude of 189 nautical miles during this mission.

“I never intended to misrepresent anything or mislead anybody... I left all the information under the Flickr post which you’ve probably read and it was just a tribute to the first untethered spacewalk. Not journalism, just art,” Zhang told the AP.

A NASA spokesperson also confirmed that the image on social media did not match any from the agency.

“Based on searches conducted by public affairs officers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home of our astronaut corps, we cannot attribute the photo in question to an official NASA source,” the spokesperson told the AP over email.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.