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Anderson, Michael P.(1959–2003) - Astronaut, Becomes First African American in Space, Perishes in International Tragedy, Chronology

air force columbia shuttle

Michael P. Anderson was one of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia , which disintegrated over Texas 16 minutes before its scheduled landing on February 1, 2003. Anderson was the sole African American on the mission, which also included the first Israeli astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon, and the first Indian-born female in space, Dr. Kaplana Chawla. His childhood dream of becoming an astronaut led to a distinguished career in the U.S. Air Force, which culminated in his becoming the first African American in space in 1998. There were no survivors from the Columbia explosion, which was caused by a faulty heat tile on the bottom of the shuttle. NASA immediate halted further space shuttle missions after the event.

Michael Phillip Anderson was born December 25, 1959, in Plattsburgh, New York to Barbara and Bobbie Anderson. He grew up in Spokane, Washington, which is mainly a military and government town and is 92 percent white, 2 percent African American. At age four he announced his intention to become an astronaut. He built countless model planes and rockets and hung them with invisible wire from his bedroom ceiling. He was so dedicated to his dream of flying that he wore goggles while mowing the lawn to prevent eye damage that would keep him from joining the Air Force. His family members saw his future early on. “We knew even then that if he was going to be anything, he was going to be a pilot,” an aunt told the Washington Post .

“I was interested in everything … from the sciences to music to writing to literature,” Anderson said in an interview located at Space.com. “But as I got older…I found that science was something that really caught my attention.” Even in high school Anderson knew, he said, that he would have to attend college and study science if he wanted to be a pilot, let alone an astronaut. So he joined the ROTC program, which later provided him a partial scholarship to college.

Anderson graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy. He joined the U.S. Air Force as a second lieutenant specializing in communications and computers. He completed a year of technical training at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi and was assigned to a base in Texas. In 1990, he earned a master’s degree in physics from Creighton University. “He didn’t come from wealth, or the best schools,” a former science instructor in Spokane told the Washington Post , “but he had an insatiable desire for knowledge.”

Like his father before him, Anderson joined the Air Force. Bobbie Anderson joined the Air Force to escape poverty in rural Mississippi. He served in Vietnam and lived with his wife and four children at bases in New York, Ohio, and Arizona before getting stationed near Spokane. He was never a pilot; he was a mechanic who serviced jets. Michael Anderson was selected to attend United States Air Force undergraduate pilot training in 1986. He was an Air Force pilot for twelve years, logging more than three thousand hours. He spent much of the 1980s stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and flew one of the military’s airborne command posts during the waning days of the Cold War. In the 1990s, he was an instructor pilot and tactics officer. He qualified for a NASA flight crew assignment in 1994.

Becomes First African American in Space

Columbia was Lt. Col. Anderson’s second space launch. The first took place in 1998, aboard the space shuttle Endeavor , and made him the first African American in space. He and his crew were assigned the task of moving more than nine thousand pounds of scientific equipment, hardware, and water from the space shuttle Endeavor to the Russian space station Mir . He was not afraid to admit he was nervous. Anderson recalled getting sweaty palms before he pushed the button to dock to the Mir . “I’d done it a million times in the simulator,” he said in a previous interview, according to the Washington Post , “but when it was real, it was a different moment entirely.” Anderson’s wife, Sandy, knew how important it was to Anderson to be the first African American astronaut in space. “He said he wanted to do it again,” she told Ebony . “He wanted to be the first man to go to Mars.” Since Anderson first went into space, Leland Melvin and Alvin Drew have joined the ranks of African American astronauts.

As the payload commander onboard the Columbia in 2003, Anderson was responsible for overseeing more than eighty scientific experiments during the sixteen-day mission. One experiment used a bioreactor to grow cells of prostate cancer which, as he noted in an interview with National Public Radio conducted onboard the Columbia , is prevalent among African American males. “We’re exceeding almost all of our expectations, and we’re getting some really good science,” he said in the radio interview.

Ironically, as much as Anderson loved flying in space, he was apprehensive about the launches. “When you launch in a rocket, you’re not really flying that rocket,” he said in an interview with Space.com. “You’re really taking an explosion and you’re trying to control it. I understand the serious nature behind a rocket launch. There are a million things that can go wrong.” He went on to add that exhaustive training and planning are required for handling those situations, but that the benefits of the science they do in space “are well worth the risk.”

Perishes in International Tragedy

The Columbia exploded as it reentered the earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003, just forty miles from the landing strip. Blame was placed on a heat-resistant tile that had fallen off the shuttle during liftoff. The Columbia disaster triggered a global outpouring of grief. After the tragedy, Anderson was honored at memorial services in various places, including Houston, Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The State Transportation Commission voted unanimously to rename part of Washington’s Route 904, near where he grew up, in his honor. The library at the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville also now bears his name.

President George W. Bush and other dignitaries traveled to Houston to attend a ceremony at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to commemorate the seven astronauts. Bush hailed them as explorers of great daring and purpose. At a more personal event, approximately three thousand people filled the interdenominational church Anderson attended, Grace Community Church in Houston. The church held a memorial ceremony for Anderson and his crewmate and fellow parishioner, Col. Rick D. Husband. Friends, family members, and coworkers recalled memories of the two men, who were both described as deeply religious and family-oriented. Anderson was a regular at Grace’s weekly prayer breakfasts for fathers. Friends and family remembered Anderson as “kind, caring, quiet … he was never boastful and was always smiling and positive,” according to Ebony Anderson also worked with the Bronze Eagles, a Houston-based African American flying club that introduces aviation to inner-city youth.

Anderson’s wife, Sandy, and the couple’s two daughters were among the group of Anderson’s large, extended family who watched in horror as the Columbia tragedy unfolded. When she first heard radio contact with the shuttle had been lost, Sandy Anderson hoped it was a temporary glitch. She avoided the press for some time after the tragedy. When she spoke to a reporter from Ebony , she said she was always aware that her husband’s job was dangerous. She also stated that she supported his dream and that she would never have asked him to switch to a safer profession. “I wouldn’t change anything even knowing what I know,” she said. “I wouldn’t talk him out of it because that was his calling. You never think it’s really going to happen to you, but at the same time, he loved what he was doing. I have to honor that.” His daughters had different feelings, she added, and “wish they could turn the clock back.”

“We are going to be O.K.,” Sandy Anderson told the New York Times . According to the Times , Anderson told his minister before Columbia launched, “If this thing doesn’t come out right, don’t worry about me, I’m just going higher.” When he died, Anderson was one of only seven African American astronauts actively serving in NASA’s Astronaut Corps.

Chronology

1959 Born in Plattsburgh, New York on December 25

1981 Graduates University of Washington; commissioned a second lieutenant in U.S. Air Force

1986 Selected to attend undergraduate pilot training

1991 Takes position as aircraft commander and instructor pilot

1992 Begins assignment as an instructor pilot and tactics officer

1994 Selected by NASA

1995 Reports for duty to NASA’s Johnson Space Center

1998 Logs first space flight on mission STS-89, the eighth Shuttle-Mir docking mission

2003 Dies during explosion of the space shuttle Columbia on February 1

Anderson, Philip Warren [next] [back] Anderson,Marian

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