Anderson, Michael P. 1959–2003
Michael P. Anderson 1959–2003
“This job is absolutely fantastic and it’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid,” Michael P. Anderson declared on January 29, 2003, according to the CBS News website. As one of NASA’s astronauts, he was speaking from the space shuttle Columbia as it orbited the earth. Tragically, just two days later the shuttle disintegrated 200,000 feet above Texas, and Anderson and his six crewmates perished. As a child, Anderson was obsessed with flight. With an imagination fueled by shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space, his dreams soared. By the time Apollo 11 landed on the moon, nine-year-old Anderson was determined to be an astronaut. It didn’t phase him that all the astronauts he saw on television were white. Nor did it bother him that he was one of only four African Americans at his high school, where he announced his space ambitions during a freshman science class. “When he first said that, I thought, ‘I don’t know, Michael,’” his teacher later confessed to U.S. News & World Report. “And then as I got to know him, I thought, ‘He’s going to do it.’” On a path as carefully charted as a space flight, Anderson threw himself into his studies, joined the air force pilots’ program, secured a master’s degree in physics, and in 1995 donned the orange jumpsuit of a NASA astronaut. Three years later he lifted off from earth for the first time. His dreams had come true. However, Anderson was aware that he had become much more than an astronaut. He knew he was a role model, a person who was capable of launching a child’s imagination. “He took very seriously the position he had,” the pastor of his church told the Los Angeles Times. Anderson always tried “to influence and encourage not just African American children, but all children, to reach for their dreams.”
Anderson was born on Christmas Day in 1959, the son of Bobby and Barbara Anderson. A career air force man, the elder Anderson raised his family on a series of air force bases before settling in Spokane, Washington, when Anderson was 11 years old. Anderson’s early obsession with flight was pervasive. He decorated his room with model airplanes and rockets. He built moon houses for his three sisters’ Barbie dolls. At night he took imaginary trips to the moon from the top of his bunk bed. His dreams were stoked by life on air force bases. “That really captured my imagination, just seeing airplanes, you know, taking off and landing every
At a Glance…
Born on December 25, 1959, at Plattsburgh AFB, NY; died on February 1, 2003; son of Bobby and Barbara Anderson; married Sandy Hawkins Anderson; children: Sydney, Kaycee. Education: University of Washington, BS, physics and astronomy, 1981; Creighton University, Omaha, NE, MA, physics, 1990; Johnson Space Center, TX, Astronaut Training Program, 1995. Religion: Christian. Military Service: U.S. Air Force officer, 1981-03.
Career: U.S. Air Force, 1981-03: 380th Air Refueling Wing, Plattsburgh AFB, NY, instructor pilot and tactics officer, 1992-95; Flight Support Branch, Astronaut Office, Johnson Space Center, technician; NASA astronaut, 1995-03.
Selected awards: Defense Superior Service Medal; U.S. Air Force Meritorious Service Medal; U.S. Air Force Achievement Medal, with one Oak leaf cluster; Defense Distinguished Service Medal (awarded posthumously); Space Flight Medal, NASA, (awarded posthumously).
day, and flying over the house, and making all of this noise just was a fascinating thing to me as a kid,” he said in an official NASA pre-flight interview reprinted on the Space website
Meanwhile, Anderson had discovered a love of science. “It was something I really could sink my teeth into,” he told the NASA interviewer. His mother recalled him spending hours alone creating experiments. His chemistry set was one of his prized possessions. At Cheney High School he was “part of a group of kids that just seemed fired up about the academic side of high school,” the Los Angeles Times noted. Before heading off to college, Anderson considered his future. In the NASA interview he recalled asking himself, “‘How can I combine my two strongest interests? My interest in science and my interest in aviation.’” His answer had been his dream all along—he would become an astronaut.
In 1977 Anderson enrolled at the University of Washington as a dual major in physics and astronomy. The fact that he was the only black student in the science department didn’t dampen his drive. He graduated with honors in both of his disciplines. In 1981 he received his military commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and left for a year’s worth of technical training at Keesler Air Force Base (AFB) in Mississippi.
He was then assigned to Randolph AFB in Texas where he worked in communications and information technology. “I got a chance to learn a little bit about electronics and apply some of my knowledge of physics to, you know, improve the communications systems in the Air Force,” he told NASA. “But my real interest was flying airplanes.” After four years on the ground, Anderson applied to the Air Force’s flight program and was accepted in 1986. He completed flight school at Vance AFB in Oklahoma and then became a pilot on the Strategic Air Command’s airborne command post. With his flight career taking off, Anderson turned his attention back to science. “I realized I really needed to improve myself a little bit more academically,” he told NASA. When not flying, Anderson studied physics and in 1990 earned a master’s degree from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1991 he was sent to Wurtsmith AFB in Michigan as an aircraft commander and flight instructor. The following year he transferred to Plattsburgh AFB in New York—the base where he was born—as a tactics officer and flight instructor.
By 1994 Anderson had been flying for eight years and had logged over 3,000 hours in the air. It was time to shoot for NASA. “So one afternoon I sat down and filled out the application and sent it in. And, just kind of sat back and waited,” he recalled to NASA. In 1995 the wait was over. Anderson’s father recalled to the CBS News website, “He called [us] very early in the morning and he said, ‘I got some good news to tell you guys,’ and he said, ‘I got accepted to NASA.’” His parents weren’t surprised. “From the time he was old enough to hear about the space program, he was interested,” his mother told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “And he brought it to pass. He was a very disciplined person. He wasn’t a quitter.” In March of 1995 Anderson reported to the Johnson Space Center in Texas with his wife, Sandy, his daughter, Sydney, and a second daughter, Kaycee, on the way. As his family settled into the Houston suburb of Clear Lake, Anderson completed the rigorous year-long training program qualifying him as an astronaut. Following his training Anderson worked as a technician in the flight support branch of the Astronaut Office. For two-and-a-half years, Anderson ran into seasoned astronauts—his childhood heroes—in the hallways, and waited for the day he could join their ranks. That day came in 1998.
In January of 1998, still burning with a child’s fascination for space, Anderson left Earth as part of the crew on the space shuttle Endeavour. Their destination was the Russian space station Mir. Anderson—the first black astronaut to visit the station—was part of a team responsible for transferring more than 9,000 pounds of supplies from the shuttle to the aging space station. His experiences with the Russians impressed Anderson. Despite several mishaps on Mir, including a severe fire and a collision with a cargo craft, the Russians pushed forward. “We are going to have accidents. We are going to have things happen that we didn’t plan on,” Anderson said in Newsweek. “If we’re going to be serious about exploring space, then we’re going to have to have the resolve that the Russians showed here.”
When Endeavour returned to Earth on January 31, it had logged over 3.6 million miles during the voyage. When Anderson returned, after 211 hours in space, he had become a hero. One of his first speeches following his flight was at his alma mater, Cheney High School, whose pennant he had carried into space with him. “His message to the kids was so upbeat, so positive. It doesn’t matter what your dream is, if you’re willing to chart the course, if you’re willing to do what it takes, you can achieve your dreams,” his former science teacher related to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “When that assembly was over, nobody wanted to leave. They all wanted to stay and talk to Mike.” Anderson accepted his influence over children readily. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that he once said he would gladly do “anything I can do to inspire a young child, to tell someone about the importance of education.” Though Anderson’s motivational message was colorblind, his African-American supporters were not. They knew that Anderson was a powerful image for young black children. His former Sunday school teacher keeps a cherished photo of Anderson prominently displayed. “It shows him in an astronaut suit standing next to the Columbia space ship,” the minister told the Fox News website. “The kids can look at him and see he is black.… It’s inspiring to show. If he can aspire to be the best, you can be the best.” While he encouraged the dreams of children—both black and white—Anderson still nurtured his own dreams. “He wanted to be the first man to go to Mars,” Anderson’s wife told Ebony.
Anderson was thrilled when he was assigned to a mission on the space shuttle Columbia. Along with six other men and women, he was to have completed a 16-day research mission. As payload commander, Anderson would oversee some 80 science experiments. The shuttle lifted off on January 16, 2003, as Anderson’s family and friends watched jubilantly from the ground at Kennedy Space Center. For the next 16 days all went well, as Columbia and her crew orbited the earth. Anderson was confident about the outcome of his experiments and relayed that enthusiasm to family and friends via email. Noting that there were three more African-American astronauts scheduled for future flights, Anderson also expressed confidence about the future of blacks in space.
On February 1, 2003, streaking through the sky at 18 times the speed of sound, Columbia attempted to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. Sixteen minutes before its scheduled landing at Kennedy, the shuttle disintegrated, claiming the life of Anderson and his crewmates. The tragedy unfolded on television as Anderson’s parents watched helplessly from Spokane. His wife and daughters were waiting for him at Kennedy. As the Anderson family struggled to cope with this incredible loss, the nation joined them in grief. NASA officials began to look for answers, and by the middle of 2003 they had determined that a piece of insulation foam had broken loose during takeoff and damaged a seal on the left wing. In space the damaged seal floated away unbeknownst to the crew, leaving a small hole. During re-entry, with temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees, the hole filled with scorching gases that caused the shuttle to burn up. It was a tragic accident, but Anderson always knew that serious accidents were possible. “There are a million things that can go wrong,” he told NASA. “We train and try to prepare for the things that may go wrong to do the best we can. But, there’s always that unknown.”
Despite the inherent dangers that would eventually claim his life, Anderson was dedicated to the space program. “The benefits for what we can do on orbit, the science that we do and the benefits we gain from exploring space are well worth the risk,” he told NASA. His family, though devastated by his death, supported his work. “I wouldn’t change anything, even knowing what I know,” Sandy told Ebony. “I wouldn’t talk him out of it because that was his calling.… He loved what he was doing. I have to honor that.” Anderson’s mother told the CBS News website, “His life wasn’t in vain and it will do some good to mankind in the future and in years to come. I’m proud to have had a son that contributed to his country, his community and to the world.”
Ebony, May 2003, p. 84.
Jet, February 17, 2003, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2003, p. A8.
Newsweek, February 10, 2003, p. 30.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 1, 2003, p. W.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, MO), February 2, 2003, p. A7.
U.S. News & World Report, May 5, 2003, p. 41.
“Astronaut Biography: Michael Anderson,” Space, www.space.com/missionlaunches/bio_mike_anderson.html (May 23, 2003).
“Bio: Shuttle Columbia Payload Commander Lt. Col. Michael Anderson,” FOX News, www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,77263,00.html (May 23, 2003).
“Columbia Board Increasingly Sure of Accident Cause,” Space, www.space.com/missionlaunches/stsl07_caib_030422.html (May 26, 2003).
“Michael Anderson: Dare To Dream,” CBS News, www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/02/03/columbia/main539098.shtml (May 23, 2003).
“Michael P. Anderson (Lieutenant Colonel, USAF), NASA Astronaut,” NASA, www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/anderson.html (May 23, 2003).
“Spokane Astronaut Lived Dream,” Seattle Times, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/134626779_anderson02m.html (May 23, 2003).
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