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Home Features Nebraska Astronaut Inspires Next Generation

by Ben Middendorf


On Thursday, Oct. 1 in Weller Hall, Clayton Anderson shared his stories of becoming an astronaut as part of the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival and to promote his new book, “The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut.”

When Anderson was 9 years old, his parents woke him on Christmas Eve in Ashland, Nebraska, to watch the Apollo 8 mission as U.S. astronauts traveled around the far side of the moon for the first time in human history. As Anderson watched and listened to Mission Control communicate with the spacecraft, he decided it was his dream to become an astronaut someday.

In 1998, 2,600 people in the U.S. applied to be astronauts, and only 25 were selected.

“25 divided by 2,600 is approximately one percent,” Anderson said, explaining what chance he’d had of being one of the chosen.

He was eventually selected, but it took him 15 years and 15 tries.

“I hold the record for U.S. astronauts for trying the most times before finally being selected,” Anderson said.

It was another nine years before he got his chance to go into space.

During that time, Anderson worked in various positions with NASA, including on board the NEEMO 5 Aquatic laboratory. He was also one of three family escorts for the return of the Columbia space shuttle, which ended in disaster as he stood with the families of the astronauts by the landing pad.

“We were all waiting to hear two sonic booms from the space shuttle as it penetrates the sound barrier,” Anderson said.

Those two booms never came.

“It was the hardest day of my life,” Anderson said, “because I was there trying to load those people in our vehicles to take them back, to put them in a room with nothing except their worst fears. And it became one of my worst fears.”

But for Anderson, the loss of the Columbia crew inspired him to continue working towards his dream so their sacrifice would not be in vain.

Anderson told other stories from his career.

“I got to ride a Volkswagen beetle with a moon roof, attached to a telephone booth,” he said, describing the space shuttle Atlantis on his first trip into space.

Anderson was on board the International Space Station for 152 days and logged almost 40 hours of extravehicular activity.

Between experiments, exercise and sleep, Anderson found ways to relieve the boredom. He stuck several Nebraska “N” stickers on the side of space suit helmets with regulation NASA tape.

On “underwear change day,” when the video feed from the station to NASA Television went live at 10 a.m. in Houston, viewers saw Anderson drift slowly up from the station floor with a clean pair of boxers on his head before Mission Control cut the feed.

The message of Anderson’s presentation was directed toward the parents and kids in the audience.

“In my family, dreams are a big deal. And I challenge you to make dreams a big deal in your family,” Anderson said. “I flew to space because I had help. I had a family which cared, I had teachers and coaches who cared.”

“Any dream is possible,” sophomore Zane Francescato said when asked for his impressions of Anderson’s presentation. “For Concordia students, it might seem like they might not get through it, and they might not get through it the first time, but as long as they keep trying to achieve their dreams, I think that’s something they could take from it.”

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