Astronaut Clay Anderson reflects on 30-year career with NASA

2013-01-26T11:50:00Z 2013-01-26T18:04:25Z Astronaut Clay Anderson reflects on 30-year career with NASABy ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

It's been one wild ride for Clay Anderson, Nebraska's only astronaut.

Anderson, who confirmed Friday he will retire after 30 years with NASA, fulfilled his boyhood dream in 2007 when he flew into space aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

He went up again in 2010. All together he logged 167 days in space, including five months aboard the International Space Station orbiting 250 miles above the Earth.

Anderson walked in space for more than 38 hours,  doing everything from adding parts to the space station to jettisoning refrigerator-sized pieces of useless hardware like Superman.

He became Nebraska's goodwill ambassador, wearing Husker red and cheering on the football team, talking to students via satellite and ham radio links,  praising his home state and its good people.

And it almost didn't happen.

Anderson applied 15 times to NASA's elite astronaut corps before he was accepted in 1998 as a mission specialist.

The Ashland native doesn't take his career or accomplishments lightly.

"There are other astronauts who have accomplished the same thing I have. They've come from states where they are not the first and only (person) to accomplish this. And so, I believe in my heart, I have achieved something special -- not for myself but for the state and all of the people in Nebraska," Anderson said in a phone interview from Houston.

Anderson will celebrate his 54th birthday Feb. 23 -- a birthday shared by Husker legend Tom Osborne. He began thinking about retirement about two years ago when NASA told him he would not be able to fly into space again. NASA was winding down its shuttle program, which officially ended in July 2011.

Anderson asked the space agency to reconsider its no-fly decision after a new management team was put in place at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The answer was the same.

Faced with budget constraints, NASA instituted an early retirement program. So Anderson and his wife, Susan, who works in public affairs for NASA, began talking about their future.

"It didn't look like my career was going to advance like I had hoped," Anderson said.

Both were approved for early retirement, but his wife decided to stay with NASA -- at least until their 16-year-old son, Cole, finished his senior year of high school. They also have a daughter, Sutton.

Anderson's last day with NASA is Jan. 31.

"I'm very proud of what I have accomplished throughout my 30 years," Anderson said. "It hasn't been easy all of the time."

He was there Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded seconds after liftoff, killing six astronauts and school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

He escorted grieving family members when the Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.

And like millions of Americans, he watched on TV as the  Atlantis -- his first ride into space -- landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, signaling the end to NASA's space shuttle missions.

"If you consider that I am the first and only astronaut to come from the Johnson Space Center summer intern program and rise to the position of astronaut -- that's a pretty good validation of: dream big, work hard and never stop pursuing those dreams," Anderson said.

The "pursue your dreams" mantra is one Anderson has preached throughout his astronaut career, especially to students across Nebraska.

"He's so positive in encouraging kids to achieve whatever they want to do -- not just being an astronaut," said Jack Dunn, coordinator of the Mueller Planetarium in Lincoln, who has followed Anderson's career. 

Even though he and his family live in Houston, Anderson has become one of Nebraska's most recognizable and popular citizens, in part because of  his dozens of visits to schools and speaking engagements in communities across the state.

He was the subject of a 2009 NET Television special, "Homemade Astronaut: The Clayton Anderson Story," and most recently appeared in a top YouTube video, "NASA Johnson Style," the spoof of the pop hit "Gangnam Style" by South Korean recording artist PSY.

Anderson has received many honors. His face is on the Omaha Press Club's bar room floor, and he recently received the Tom Osborne Leadership award in Hastings, where he earned his bachelor's degree from Hastings College.

"He is an iconic figure now in Nebraska. Everybody knows him," Dunn said. "I find so many people that say: I know him. He's a friend of mine."

Why does he spend so much time in the state?

"I feel a huge loyalty to the state and the people who made me the person I am today. And the way I was raised tells me whenever possible you're supposed to give back," Anderson said. "So, I don't know what the future holds, but perhaps I will find an opportunity where I can truly give back to the state."

For now, Anderson and his family plan to live in Houston and make periodic trips to Nebraska. He will be back in April for visits to Grand Island and Lincoln and will make an appearance at the 20th anniversary of the Nebraska Star Party in the Sandhills in early August.

Asked of any plans to run for political office in Nebraska, Anderson replied: "That's definitely something I'm looking to consider in the future, but in order to do that I would have to return home."

Meanwhile, he plans to continue writing his book, "Just Taking Up Space." Anderson described it as the story of his life as an astronaut.

No doubt there will be a chapter on the proudest moment in his career: when he finally reached orbit as the first Nebraska astronaut.

Anderson also will talk about one of his deepest regrets. His late mother, Alice, watched him fly into space but not his father, John "Jack" Anderson, who died of a stroke in 1984, at age 53.

"He was watching from a different grandstand," Anderson said. 

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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