Nebraska’s only astronaut, who spent a good chunk of his childhood in his backyard aiming a Sears Roebuck telescope into the night sky, is coming home for the first total solar eclipse in nearly 100 years to traverse that same Nebraska sky.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Clayton Anderson, the Nebraska native who spent 30 years at NASA and logged 167 days in space before retiring in 2013.
Anderson makes Houston his home now — far from the path of totality where the moon will cover the sun — but on the eve of the solar eclipse he’ll be in Hastings, the town of his college alma mater, speaking at a black-tie gala in honor of the event.
And on Aug. 21 — the first time since the 1400s Nebraska has been in an eclipse’s path of totality — “Astro Clay” will descend from the skies (if not space) in a helicopter to the ball fields in Hampton.
The village — seven miles east of Aurora in south-central Nebraska that boasts 400-some residents, one restaurant, a beauty salon and hardware store among its main street businesses — expects 2,000 people to watch the eclipse. And Anderson will be the guest of honor.
Karen Rasmussen Bamesberger, who has been coordinating plans for the eclipse for the past year, was looking for someone who could represent the big event for the small town sitting in its path.
“I thought, shoot, 'Astro Clay',” she said. “We wanted to focus on the kids. Our small schools in Nebraska don’t always have the same opportunity as the big schools. I was thinking who could we get for the kids, to bring people to our small town.”
He’ll come in on the helicopter to give the kids — from both the public and parochial schools in Hampton, as well as those from surrounding areas — a visual connection to Anderson’s space career.
“We wanted to give the kids the idea that this is an astronaut, he’s been in space,” she said.
Because he has — riding the space shuttle Atlantis in 2007 for a five-month tour of duty at the International Space Station and again in 2010 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery for a resupply mission.
His story, now the subject of a book titled “The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut,” is a testament to his dogged determination to fulfill those dreams.
Anderson applied 15 times to NASA’s elite astronaut corps before he was accepted in 1998 as a mission specialist.
His message on Aug. 21 will likely touch on the themes that experience taught him: daring to be extraordinary by dreaming big, persevering against adversity.
There will be other events on the Hampton ballfield: Members of the Omaha Tribe performing eclipse dances and an explanation of what the phenomenon means in the Native culture; a magician from Omaha performing a “solar eclipse show,” and fireworks lasting the same amount of time the sun will be hidden behind the moon.
“We want to reinforce this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Rasmussen Bamesberger said.
Anderson will help with that.
He sees the eclipse as an opportunity for schools, a chance to see science in real time, maybe be the spark that ignites another young dreamer.
“All those kids in small-town schools that dream of doing something bigger, if they go outside and see what nature does, maybe they’ll be excited. ... Being a kid is all about curiosity and finding the hot buttons that push them to go on and do great things.”
For a 9-year-old Anderson, the hot button was watching Apollo 8 on television in 1968, the first mission to circle the moon.
“I think it was the tension when talking to the flight control team,” he said in a phone interview. “That tension as we waited, as we listened to the static and they came around the other side (of the moon) and I thought ‘Wow, that is so cool, I want to do that.’”
It drew him outside at night with his telescope to gaze at the vastness above, and dream.
“Who knows,” he said. “Maybe some day Nebraska will have another astronaut.”
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