Photo credit: NASA.
Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson during a spacewalk working on the International Space Station.
Astronaut Clay Anderson is known as the Ordinary Spaceman – the title of his memoir – but perhaps a more precise moniker would be the Approachable Spaceman. Though he’s traveled millions of miles in low-Earth orbit, it’s clear that he’s never far from his Nebraska roots and the midwestern sensibilities that keep him grounded. His Twitter bio describes him as a “crazy fun US Astronaut,” and those who’ve met him at personal appearances and book signings would be hard-pressed to disagree.
Now retired from NASA, Clay has parlayed his space experience into a multi-faceted post-astronaut career as an award-winning author, popular public speaker, STEM advocate, and part-time instructor at his alma mater, Iowa State University. During a 30-year NASA career which included 15 years as an engineer and 15 years as an astronaut, he spent 167 days in space and executed six spacewalks.
Photo credit: NASA.
Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson.
I saw recently on Twitter that someone was asking astronauts about who would play them in a movie. Who did you say would portray you in “The Clayton Anderson Story?”
They had asked Winston Scott, who’s African-American, and he suggested Will Smith and Denzel Washington. So, in order to be the silly person I typically try to be on Twitter, I tweeted, “Denzel Washington and Will Smith ... oh wait, hold on ... maybe a better choice is Michael Keaton.”
That’s a good choice. I can see that.
I provided photograph evidence [laughs].
Do you think that will ever happen? Will we see a movie version of your book, The Ordinary Spaceman?
No. There’s a documentary about my life on the Nebraska Educational TV system called Homemade Astronaut. But I’m not a big enough name like Scott Kelly and his year-long mission and TIME jumping on his bandwagon and Sony making a movie about him. I’m pretty small-fry compared to all that.
Let’s go back to an earlier period of your life. Did you always want to be an astronaut? If not, how did you end up being an astronaut instead of what you thought you wanted to be?
I wanted to be a professional football player or basketball player and those things that most kids want. But, when I was 9, my parents awakened my brother and sister and me on Christmas Eve in 1969 and put us in front of a black-and-white TV to watch the Apollo 8 astronauts go behind the moon for the first time in human history. That’s my recollection of the first time it really cemented in my brain how cool that would be. But, before she passed away, my mother said when I was 6 years old I would come to her and discuss that I was one day going to be an astronaut. I don’t remember that, but I trust my mom tremendously, so her story of that is kind of cool. Even three years before I can remember, I was thinking about being an astronaut.
After that event on Christmas Eve and the impact it had on you, what steps did you take toward the goal of becoming an astronaut?
The first time I recall taking any steps toward becoming an astronaut was when I went to college and decided that I was not going to study coaching and education; I was going to begin to study physics and math. Obviously, that’s a key distinction -- it’s really hard to be an astronaut if you study just education and coaching, although, these days, several educators have flown in space.
As I got older and began to chart my college path, I began to think about simply working for NASA as an engineer. I figured it was going to be pretty tough to become an astronaut. In fact, in ’81, when I received my first summer internship at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, I would go talk to a fellow named Bud Ream who, at the time, was in charge of astronaut selection. I remember being really nervous and sitting in his office, but he was very collegial and helpful and he kind of told me, “Hey, this is something difficult to do, but it’s not impossible.”
As I listened to him, I thought, “I don’t know -- maybe I can and maybe I can’t,” but I went off to Iowa State University to get an aerospace engineering degree in hopes of simply working for NASA. Being an astronaut was going to be frosting on the cake; it looked to be next to impossible. I knew in my heart that if I was working at Johnson Space Center where all the astronauts were, and maybe got a chance to work with, or talk to, or be around them, that I would be a happy camper. So, I pursued that work as an engineer and then applied when I was eligible to see what would happen.
Photo credit: NASA.
Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson serving as Expedition 15 flight engineer on the International Space Station.
I read that you applied 15 times to the astronaut program before you were selected. Is that true?
That is true. It’s a little misleading in that, you have to apply every year – you have to update your application materials every year or they boot you out of the pool. So, I applied every year for 15 years and I would not receive an interview until the 13th year. I would get my second interview in the 15th year, when I was selected. I guess I hold the record for application years and not getting picked until year 15 – although, they don’t pick astronauts every year. Once Challenger happened, they went to every two years; then, when Columbia happened, they went to every four years; and, even after that, it became quite random as to how many years would pass before they selected a class. Now it’s done on an as-needed basis – do we need some new astronauts? Well, let’s go pick them.
A lot of people would have gotten discouraged after – I don’t know – five tries? Ten tries?
[Laughs] They’re a lot smarter than me, I guess.
What kept you going year after year and – perhaps as a broader question – is there something in your nature or your upbringing that kept you persevering when the odds seemed to be against you?
I’ll answer that two ways. First of all, I tell everybody, it’s easy to apply to be an astronaut; it’s hard to get selected. The process of filling out the paperwork and turning it in 15 years in a row is simply an exercise in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The hardest application was the first one or two that I did. After that, I just had to update what had changed in my life and career. So, I never really found that daunting. I just found it frustrating that the more I turned it in and the more I got rejected, the harder it became to bring myself to do that dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s one more time.
My family always taught us that we don’t quit. If we said, “Hey, mom, dad, I’d like to learn how to play the piano,” and they agreed, and we entered into piano lessons, we were not allowed to quit. If we started on an athletic squad and, halfway through the season, we were having a bad season or whatever, we were not allowed to quit. That work ethic and that relentless pursuit of the end goal went a long way to help me continue to try to better myself as I grew older, and to continue to submit those applications.
How did they notify you when you got chosen? Was it a phone call or a letter in the mail?
When you submit your application materials, you get a little postcard – at least, it was a postcard back then (and I wish I would have saved all those 14 postcards) – that said, “We’ve received your materials and we’ll get back to you.” Then, if you don’t get to the point where they want you to come to Houston for an interview, you don’t get any information back.
In year 13, when they brought me to Houston for an interview with the fifth group of six groups that year, I got a letter that basically congratulated me for applying but said, “You’re rejected.” I didn’t realize until a lady wrote a book called Rejection Letters and my letter was in the book – I don’t know how she got it – but, that letter said, “You’re highly qualified, but you don’t fit our needs right now.” I was fired up because I was highly qualified and that was a good sign.
Two years later, I was asked to come for an interview again and, this time, I would be in the first group of candidates, not the fifth. I was always told that was a really good sign and it turned out to be correct, as several of the guys and gals that were in that first group were selected.
If you get a chance to read my first book, The Ordinary Spaceman, there is a good story in the chapter, “Hey, There’s an App for That” that talks about the application process. There’s another chapter called, “Answer the Phone, Will Ya?” and that’s the chapter about the day I got the call that I was going to be selected as an astronaut.
I have both of your children’s books and I love them, but I regret that I haven’t read The Ordinary Spaceman yet.
Oh, you’ve got to read The Ordinary Spaceman! It’s the greatest astronaut memoir every written [laughs].
How did the title of the book come about?
My original title for it was Just Taking Up Space, and I really liked that title because of the joke about government employees. My father used to tell people that, when I was younger, he’d say, “Don’t just take up space in school; study a little math and science,” and he’d laugh. So, I loved that title. Nevada Barr, who’s a good friend of mine – a New York Times best-selling author and incredibly successful – offered to write the foreword to the book, and I was lamenting how the publisher, the University of Nebraska Press, didn’t like my title. She said, “Throw away ‘Just’ and call it Taking Up Space’.” I submitted that title back to them and they still didn’t like it. They gave me some title examples that I thought were kind of boring. I was emailing Nevada about all that and she said, “You know, Clay, for every book I’ve every written, my job was to pick the title that I hated the least,” because she said she never got to pick the title – the publisher always did.
Fast forward a little bit and the University of Nebraska Press and I were still arguing about titles. I was mowing my lawn one day and I was trying to think of titles for the book. I thought of Space Between My Ears and then, all of a sudden, I went inside and wrote down a bunch of new titles and sent them to Nevada. She didn’t like any of them, but she sent me an email and said, “I was drinking coffee the other day and I came up with these five titles.” I opened the file and my wife and I were looking at it, and the first title was The Ordinary Spaceman. We looked at each other and said, “That’s perfect!”
I am an ordinary guy. Everybody is just like me. Every kid in America was just like me. There was nothing special about me that allowed me to become an astronaut that every kid in America doesn’t already exhibit. We submitted The Ordinary Spaceman and we gave taglines – the publisher said you had to have a tagline because it makes it easier for people to search for your book – so, they provided “From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut.”
The title seems a little different than one might expect, given all the things you’ve accomplished – the amount of time you spent in space, the numerous spacewalks and other activities – but your explanation of the title makes sense.
I want people to know that I’m the everyman’s astronaut. I’m sure I have some ego, I guess, but I know a lot of my colleagues that have a way bigger ego than I do. They believe they can do anything, anywhere, anytime – and I’m not that way. I’m just a small-town kid from Nebraska who had the help of a family that loved him, a town of people that cared, and a high school and college full of good teachers and professors who helped me grow. That’s how I got there. I didn’t get there because I’m some superstar genius smart guy that can do it all. I’m just an ordinary spaceman.
Photo credit: NASA.
"Astro Clay" on the International Space Station shows his pride for being the first NASA astronaut from the great state of Nebraska.
I admire your humility, because a lot of people who achieve something that only a handful of people on Earth will ever get to experience might let it go to their heads a little bit. It must be that Midwest upbringing.
I’m very proud of the fact that I’m the first and only astronaut from the state of Nebraska. I’m very proud of my Midwest upbringing and how I was raised. I take a lot of pride in that.
You’ve spent a lot of time in space, including five months on board the International Space Station in 2007. I know astronauts train incredibly hard and prepare for all kinds of experiences and scenarios, but what was the most surprising thing about your time on the ISS?
It was kind of surprising that, in everything I did, from my launch on June 8 to my landing on November 7, 2007, every single thing we did was on time. Every launch, every docking, every departure, every one of them was on time. That was interesting because often times there is a delay for some reason.
The other thing that was surprising was how well-spaced everything was. I didn’t really have a chance to be bored or lonely. I launched on June 8 and I was going to do a spacewalk in July; the STS-118 crew was coming in August; in September, we were going to do robotic operations and move the Pressurized Mating Adapter from one place to another; in October, STS-120 was going to dock with the station; and I was going home in November. Everything was spaced out so nicely that it all kind of flowed together. You finished one big activity and then turned your focus to the next big activity.
Working experiments every day and doing the mundane, day-to-day ops – for me, anyway – can get really old. If you’re on station like Scott Kelly was for a year, there’s no way you’re going to have something cool happening every month – so, I would imagine he may have had some periods where he might have been bored or he might have been down. If I were to go back to the station, I believe that is what would happen if I was not sufficiently focused on a nicely spaced-out basis.
Photo credit: NASA.
Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson during a spacewalk (EVA) outside the International Space Station.:
(End, Part 1)
Click here to read Part Two
NOTE: Clay Anderson’s award-winning book, The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut, is available at www.astroclay.com, along with his children's books and a special Astronaut Edition Fisher Space Pen.
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Astronaut Clayton "Astro Clay" Anderson, Nebraska's only Astronaut, spent 167 days in space and 38 hours and 28 minutes in executing 6 spacewalks. He applied 15 times before NASA selected him as an Astronaut in 1998; and he spent 30 years working for NASA, 15 as an engineer and then 15 as an Astronaut.
Succeeding in one of the most difficult and coveted jobs in the world through perseverance and a never-give-up mantra, Anderson employs NASA's "Plan, Train and Fly (Execute)" philosophy to all his speaking engagements and projects. Coupled with lessons learned in the areas of leadership, persistence, and passion, he provides unique and "out of this world" insights for those seeking to achieve practical execution.
Clay's AWARD WINNING book, The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut, children's books A is for Astronaut: Blasting Through the Alphabet and It's a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut's Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions and a special "Astronaut Edition" Fisher Space Pen are available at www.AstroClay.com. For speaking events please reach out at www.AstronautClayAnderson.com and follow Clay on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, using @Astro_Clay #WeBelieveInAstronauts
Photo © Clayton C. Anderson.
Retired NASA astronaut Clayton C. Anderson at home showing off his books: The Ordinary Spaceman, A is for Astronaut and It's a Question of Space.