Michael Anderson: From the Ground to the Sky

Born on December 25th in 1959, Michael P. Anderson, was a Lieutenant Colonel with the United States Air Force (USAF) and NASA Astronaut that sadly died in the Columbia tragedy. Anderson began his career as the Chief of Communication Maintenance at Randolph AFB, Texas after graduating from the University of Washington in 1981. Anderson went on to attend pilot training in 1986 and served as a pilot until 1994, during which he earned numerous medals from the USAF. In 1994, Anderson was selected by NASA to complete Astronaut training and become a mission specialist. Prior to the Columbia tragedy, Anderson had logged over 221 hours in space during his first space mission which occurred in 1998. While Anderson has a very accomplished career, I believe we can best recognize and honor him during black history month by drawing a few important lessons from his life that could help us all. Anderson’s story provides inspiration and simple messages for both young people and young professionals that are trying to determine what to do with their lives.

The first is being true to your passion. As a child, Anderson developed an early fascination with science and flying. Recognizing that flying and science were his passions, he wanted to have a career where he could be true to both. Anderson stated in a pre-flight interview, “How can I combine my two strongest interests, science and aviation. At that time, we were going to the Moon and doing some really fantastic things with the space program and to me that was just the best combination of the two, it just seemed like the perfect mix and the perfect job. So, very early on, I just thought being an astronaut would be a fantastic thing to do.” Thus, Anderson decided to major in Physics and prepare for a career in the Air Force by joining the ROTC. While in the Air Force, he realized that Astronauts were the engineers that were having the most fun flying, so he returned to school at Creighton to earn his Masters in Physics and also applied to NASA.

In addition to being focused and true to his passions, Anderson gives credit to the impacts others have had on his success. When asked who inspired him, Anderson stated “First of all, you can’t forget your parents and all they’ve done to help you to get here. But it’s really the people that you don’t think about every day that influence you. Teachers, ministers that you worshiped under, and the people that you just came into contact with at the right time that may have said something that turned a light on in your head and led you down a certain path. Those people you really just cannot thank enough. And as you look back at your life, there are just a million different things that have happened, just in the right way, to allow you to make your dreams come true. And you know someone has all that under control.”

Lastly, we can learn from Anderson about the importance of taking risks.

The actual launch was one of the things Anderson liked the least about space exploration due to the numerous things that can go wrong.

Anderson, however, believed those unknowns have to be looked at in the context of the purpose and when compared against the purpose, they can be worth taking. “Even though we have gone to great pains to make space exploration as safe as we can, there is always the potential for something to go wrong. We try not to think about those things and we train and prepare for the things that may go wrong to the best we can, but there is always that unknown and I guess it is the unknown that I do not like. But, like I said, the benefits of what we can do in orbit, the science that we do, and the benefits we gain from exploring space are well worth the risk, so I don’t like launches, but it’s worth the effort. It really is. For me, it’s the fact that what I’m doing can have great consequences and great benefits for everyone, for mankind.”

Anderson is the 3rd black Astronaut to die, since the first black Astronaut was enlisted in the space program in 1967. The others include Robert Lawrence the first black Astronaut that was killed in a plane crash during an Air Force training exercise and Ronald McNair who died in the Challenger explosion in 1986. There have been a total of 14 black Astronauts in NASA’s 40 years of manned space travel. As we celebrate black history month, let us celebrate the lives of not only our black Astronauts, but all of those that have perished in space travel for the benefit of all of mankind.

For more information on Black Astronauts consider reading African-American Astronauts, Gail Saunders-Smith, L. Octavia Tripp, Stanley P. Jones. Capstone Press, 1998