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Black Astronaut Felt ‘Honored, Blessed’ to Fly Shuttle Mission

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San Bernardino

By Marcus E. Walton
Special to the NNPA from The Sacramento Observer

One of the astronauts who lost their lives when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it descended to land near the completion of its 16-day mission, was one of just nine African-Americans to ever go into space.

Lt. Col Michael P. Anderson, 43, died along with six other astronauts Saturday morning, as the shuttle explosion strewed pieces of hot metal and toxic rubbish across hundreds of miles of Texas and Louisiana. He once described his job as being “to tackle the unknown, and take part in man’s greatest adventure.”

On this latest exploration into space, Anderson, the crew’s lone African-American member, was the mission’s payload commander, responsible for managing the scientific experiments conducted aboard the Columbia. In his last national interview, with National Public Radio’s Tavis Smiley, Anderson said that the space program had a “really bright” future for African-Americans, with three Black astronauts scheduled to fly on shuttle missions in the coming year.

The interview took place on Wednesday, Jan. 29, Col. Anderson and Columbia pilot Willie McCool answered questions from space.
Anderson said that astronauts Robert Curbeam, Joan Higginbotham and Stephanie Wilson were all in line to take shuttle flights on various missions.
“It looks like the future’s really bright,” Anderson said.

But in the past he has admitted that being Black has been a challenge as he moved through the steps necessary to become an astronaut.

“Throughout life, every individual faces challenges. The key to facing those challenges is having confidence and faith in yourself,” Anderson said in a NASA sponsored Web cast in March 2000. “Instead of giving up, I always looked for an open window of opportunity.

You have take advantage of those windows. Whatever obstacles face you, don’t let them stop you. Be willing to work hard to get all the tools you need so you can take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves.”

While the astronauts get a lot of the recognition, the experiments being conducted on the Columbia mission would have also benefited African-Americans, he said. The scientists on board were growing prostate cancer cell in a bioreactor on the shuttle in order to study the disease, which disproportionately affects Black men.

“Hopefully, from some of the research we’re doing up here, we can really help out in those areas,” Anderson told Smiley. “So far, I have to tell you, we’ve been really pleased with what we’re seeing. We’re exceeding almost all of our expectations, and we’re getting some really good science.”

Col. Anderson had one other space flight under his belt, a 1998 journey to the space station aboard space shuttle Endeavor. On that flight the shuttle crew docked with the Russian Space Station Mir and delivered more than 9,000 pounds of supplies and equipment, as well as exchanged U.S. astronauts.

With more than 211 hours in space, Anderson was among the most experienced of the crew members. He, Commander Rick D. Husband and Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla were the only members of the crew with more than one space flight. It had been nearly five years since Col. Anderson flew in space. Since then he said he’s been more than ready to go back.

“I’m ready to go right now. Sign me up and I’ll go any time,” he said in the 2000 Web chat. “The first thing I thought about when I got to space was the fact that all of these years of hard work and training had paid off. My dream had finally come true,” he wrote in that web cast.

“I think dreams are very important. You should find out what your dream is and pursue it. When we went from the gravity of earth to the zero gravity of space, I knew my dream had come true. When you look back at Earth and see how beautiful it is, you realize how special it is. I felt very honored and blessed to be allowed and be able to travel into space and see this.”

Anderson was born on Christmas Day, 1959 in Plattsburgh, N.Y. He graduated from Cheney High School in Cheney, Washington, in 1977 and received his Bachelor of Science degree in physics and astronomy from the University of Washington in 1981. In 1990 he earned his Master of Science degree in physics from Creighton University.

He was selected by NASA in December 1994 and completed a year-long training course at the Johnson Space Center in 1996. An avid jazz and science fiction fan, Anderson and the crew of the Endeavor were awakened one morning by the sounds of Stanley Clarke’s “Hideaway,” one of his favorite songs, the NASA Web site says, on the 1998 mission to Mir.

Along with a wife and two children, who were in Florida to greet the returning shuttle when it exploded, Anderson leaves behind a proud family, CNN reported. His sister, Joanne, who did not give her last name to the cable network, said that her brother dreamed of being an astronaut from the time he was small.

“It was a future reality to him. We knew when he set his sights on that, that that’s what he would do,” she told CNN. “The United States of America has many, many problems—racism is one of them,” she added, “but only in America could he have achieved what he did achieve.”

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