Photo credit: NASA.
Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson.
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.
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Photo credit: NASA.
Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson during a mission in space.
I’m one of those people who has the app on my phone to see when the ISS is flying over and every time it’s visible in Phoenix, I’m out there looking at it. I often wonder why I’m the only person on my street watching it. I don’t understand why everyone isn’t standing outside marveling at the fact that this little moving light in the sky is actually a spacecraft filled with astronauts orbiting Earth and doing amazing science in space. Does it disappoint you that the public isn’t as engaged as maybe they should be in what’s going on in human spaceflight today, or as interested as they were in years past?
I’m not Beyoncé. I’m not Colin Kaepernick. I’m not Donald Trump. As a society, we are so focused on celebrity status that it’s oftentimes disappointing to me that we don’t have more people focused on stepping outside on their porch and watching the space station fly over – because it is such a magnificent achievement, not only by America, but by the world. People want to go to events and they want to get autographs from superstar singers and dancers and actors, and I get that. I think it would be cool to meet some of those people, too, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of them. And oftentimes they look at me just like I look at them.
But, the problem is that NASA can’t advertise, which is unfortunate. We have to figure out ways to make people understand that what we’re doing with their tax dollars is ultimately an investment. We need to do better at showing them what that investment in tax dollars comes back to do for them – things like their cell phone technology, invisible braces, Air Jordan sneakers; things like artificial sows in the Midwest; things like infrared photography of wineries that spot disease so the people growing the grapes can take out the diseased acre and not have to take out 20 acres. All those things exist, and they are important, and people can find that information, but they have to want to go find it.
There was a time when what was going on in space and all the different missions and accomplishments was front-page news. People have become complacent about it.
When Elon Musk gets ready to launch, there is stuff in the news about some “planted” op-eds that were anti-SpaceX, and speculation about who may have planted them. That’s the kind of juicy gossip that people might read more than, “Hey, did you know three astronauts/cosmonauts landed in Russia today?” “Oh, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know there was anybody up there.” Nobody really pays attention. But, somebody like Elon Musk, who’s a celebrity figure and a bazillionaire, is more in that celebrity category than Clay Anderson, the ordinary spaceman, who nobody knows about because he’s a six-foot-tall white guy from Nebraska [laughs].
I don’t know how you fix that. The only way to fix that is if guys like Elon Musk are hugely successful, and they advertise, and people find it invigorating. We’ll just have to wait and see. I imagine if we go back to the Moon and somebody steps on the Moon again – or Mars – that people will be more engaged for that moment in history.
Photo credit: NASA.
Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson on the International Space Station.
What do you think our next destination should be? NASA has focused a lot on studying the Earth itself – doing their atmospheric studies, global warming studies and those kinds of things. There are Moon advocates and Mars advocates, NASA proponents and private industry proponents. What is your opinion of what we should be focusing on?
First of all, all of that takes money. Spaceflight is expensive. It’s dangerous and it’s hard. The ability for America to do things is costly. That being said, I’m a big ‘let’s go back to the Moon’ guy.
I like to use the analogy of the Pilgrims that landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. They got off the boat and a lot of them died because they had no idea how to survive there. It took a while for those people to learn how to survive – how to build a small community, how to withstand the winters and the disease and all the things that were coming about – and they needed the help of the Native Americans that were here already. It wasn’t until that colony got solid, substantial, safe and self-sustaining that people began to move west. As they moved west across the Adirondacks and into the Midwest, some of them said, “This is hard. I’m just going to stop. I can’t go any further,” and they had to figure out how to live off the land where they were.
In my opinion, that’s kind of where we are and why we need to go to the Moon. I want us to learn to live off the land on a lunar surface that’s three days away and doesn’t have a communication delay of 20 minutes, such that we can have Caterpillar and John Deere and those kinds of commercial companies help us with the technology development and infrastructure required to have a colony of 20 or 25 people living and working and surviving on the Moon.
As we do that, we can learn what we are going to need to do when we go to Mars, and that’s where I think some parallel development – if the money is available – can begin to occur. I don’t know if it’s a great analogy, but I think it’s important that people understand there’s a progression that has to take place.
Do you see that being done primarily by NASA, or by private industry, or a combination of the two?
That’s a good question. I think if people really look at it, even Apollo was done mostly by a combination of the two. NASA didn’t do everything. They hired subcontractors that built the vehicles and did the testing and a lot of things. When you look at NASA, you have to look at them as the conductor of the orchestra, and then you have all the various woodwinds, brass, percussion – those things that are done by contractors like Elon Musk, Boeing and whomever.
Then, the question becomes, where does the money come from? Is Elon Musk kicking in his private funding? Well, he is, but the stuff NASA has contracted him to do – the taxpayers are paying for SpaceX Crew Dragon. Elon is spending his personal money on other stuff. It’s definitely a combination thing.
I think the commercialization of space is a good thing, as long as you have a market for that. Take Virgin Galactic, for example – Richard Branson has been wanting to send tourists into space for quite some time, yet here we are, and he still hasn’t done it. He was close a few years ago and then he had a test pilot killed when something bad happened on his spaceship. To me, that is the big question in all this. If Elon Musk develops a rocket that can carry humans to the space station, or to his hotel, or to Mars, or wherever he wants to send them, what happens when he kills somebody? Because the statistics say he will kill someone. Then, what does he do? Does he say, “I’m going to figure this out and we’re going keep doing it?” – which would be great, but, what does his market do? As soon as Virgin Galactic had that accident, several people who had placed deposits to fly with them pulled their deposits.
In the early days of airplane flight, it was very expensive, and it was really dangerous, and people had to really want to do it. As it got safer, and we got smarter, and the technology was developed, we now send people flying around the world thousands of times every day with minimal issues. I think we’re like Orville and Wilbur standing on the sand at Kitty Hawk; we’re kind of at the same threshold with spaceflight.
And that goes back to what we were talking about with marketing – whether by NASA or a private entity – to get the public enthusiastic about these things. The government typically will not appropriate funds for a ‘non-essential’ program if there’s not enough public support for it.
The public support comes from proving to the people who provide the tax dollars the benefits of what we’re doing. People say, “We’re humans! We must explore!” I get all that, but the real deal is that I don’t care where we go. I don’t care if we go to Mars, the Moon, to an asteroid – I have a preference, but, in the end, I really don’t care – because it’s what you learn along the way. As we decide to go wherever we’re going to go, technology must be developed, and it’s that technology development that will pay back and benefit people who are living on the Earth. That’s how I would present it if it were up to me.
The government can’t advertise. NASA can’t advertise. We can’t say, “The shuttle used Michelin tires.” I can’t say, “Clay Anderson ate Jell-O Pudding cups when he lived on the space station. I can’t say, “We shot all of our photos with a Nikon D2X.” That’s not allowed. We had to say we ate “candy-coated chocolates,” which are M&Ms. Imagine if you could do advertising like the Russians do. Maybe that would help. It wouldn’t hurt. But, NASA is opposed to that.
Photo credit: NASA.
Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson getting prepared to launch to space on the Space Shuttle.
You mentioned the lunar landing and we have the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 coming up in 2019. What are your plans for celebrating that event?
I’m going to the Hollywood studio where all that was filmed. I’m really excited about seeing how they faked all that stuff [laughs].
I don’t know how much celebrating I’ll do. I totally understand the significance of the event and I think it’s really cool that we’re having a 50th anniversary, and the 60th anniversary of NASA this year. If someone asks me to speak or do something, I’ll consider that and see if it fits my schedule.
I’m very proud to be part of those 50 years and those 60 years [pauses]. To me, it’s somewhat bittersweet to be celebrating the 50 years without a really solid plan for the next 50 years. When Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard,” he united an entire nation to get behind the project to send humans to the Moon, and we did. I want that again. I’m not sure how we’re going to get it, but I would really like that again, where every kid in American schools looks first to the internet to learn about what happened in space today, not what happened in the National Football League, or on Entertainment Tonight, and which celebrities got divorced, and who had a baby, and who wore the most beautiful dress at the awards show.
I know you’re a big STEM/STEAM advocate and you have written two great children’s books …
The next one is on its way.
Oh, what will the next one be about?
A Question of Space came out in July, so I have three books on the market. The fourth was submitted to Sleeping Bear Press, and Let’s Go for a Spacewalk is its title for now. They are still mulling over the idea and the manuscript, but they said they liked it, so I am hopeful that some time in the near future, I’ll be telling people that I have another children’s book coming out.
Is it about your personal experiences doing spacewalks?
It’s a children’s book that layers the steps required of an astronaut to go on a spacewalk.
That sounds like a great book. As you go around and speak to kids at appearances and book signings, does talking with them give you hope for the future of space exploration?
Most of the time, absolutely. But, I spoke at an elementary school several months ago with my children’s book, where the publishers donated hundreds of copies to the school district because those kids didn’t have books. I was told some very disturbing facts, one of which was that most of the kids at that school did not have a male role model in their life who reads. That struck me. [As a child] I woke up every day and watched my father read the newspaper every morning. For a kid of elementary school age not to have a role model – of a man, first of all, and then of a man reading – how disappointing is that?
Until we fix that, and we have solid school systems where STEAM is the deal -- if we’re not teaching science, technology, engineering, art and math – we’re messing up. If you take away music, band, theater, and physical education programs from schools, we’re making a huge mistake. We’re destined to fail if we continue to do that.
Societally, we have lots of issues that we need to solve and, as a man of faith and a man of family, that is where it should start; not kicking prayer out of schools and kicking the Pledge of Allegiance out of schools and athletic events. It’s important that we have a solid family structure where there are strong, leading parents in the family. Kids need adult supervision, leadership, mentorship, and love.
You’ve been so generous with your time and insights today. Is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked you about?
I challenge everybody to consider that they’re just like me. With hard work, some help from their family and community, some perseverance, and a little bit of luck, they can do whatever they choose to do. But, they’re not going to fall into it. It takes effort.
The thing I would tell young people, especially, is to never tell yourself ‘no.’ Let someone else tell you no. If you think, “Oh, my eyes aren’t good enough; I can’t be an astronaut,” then you’re telling yourself no. Let the eye doctor who assesses your eyes tell you no. Too often, young people are being told no, and that makes me sad. We need to encourage them, tell them yes, and help them find the next steps to the ‘yes’ part of their lives.
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Photo credit: NASA.
Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson with his family.
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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.
We are grateful to Clay for providing signed copies of three of his most popular books that were given away in a random drawing for our Inspiring Figures readers. Thanks to the three winners and all who participated in our drawing!
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Signed copies of the first three books written by retired NASA astronaut Clayton C. Anderson.
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.