Michael Anderson: From humble roots to one of America's 'humble heroes'

If Michael Anderson hadn't clued you in — and he probably wouldn't have — it's unlikely you would have picked him out of a crowd as an astronaut.

There was no "Right Stuff" swagger in his walk, nothing of the steely-eyed fighter pilot in his gaze. He was black in a group still overwhelmingly white.

And he was quiet.

In a proud NASA tradition he drove a fast car. But he never got a speeding ticket in his classic Porsche, an omission worthy of a demerit in the fabled astronaut corps.

"He could have cared less if people knew he was an astronaut. In fact we really didn't tell anybody," his widow, Sandra, said in a video played at a memorial service in Houston last week.

Anderson and six colleagues died Feb. 1 when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart 16 minutes before it was due to land. The shuttle disintegrated 207,000 feet up — not quite space, but not Earth either.

Anderson died between two worlds he had navigated well for his 43 years. He was born on Christmas Day, the son of an Air Force mechanic and a homemaker. His dual passions — science and religion — kept him slightly apart from school classmates in Spokane. His focus never wavered and eventually earned him membership in a club more exclusive than the U.S. Senate.

Michael P. Anderson
1959 — 2003

: Dec. 25, 1959, in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Education: Bachelor of science in physics and astronomy, University of Washington; master of science in physics, Creighton University, Omaha, Neb.

Honors: Armed Forces Communication Electronics Association Academic Excellence Award, 1983; USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training Academic Achievement Award, Vance Air Force Base; Defense Superior Service Medal; USAF Meritorious Service Medal; USAF Achievement Medal with one leaf cluster.

NASA career: Accepted in 1994; flew on the eighth shuttle-Mir docking mission (Jan. 22-31, 1998), during which the crew transferred more than 9,000 pounds of scientific equipment, logistical hardware and water from space shuttle Endeavour to Mir. Mission lasted eight days, 19 hours and 47 seconds and traveled 3.6 million miles in 138 orbits of Earth.

Family: Wife, Sandra; daughters, Kaycee, 9; Sydney, 11.

Residence: Houston

When Columbia, designated STS-107, took off from Florida on Jan. 16, Anderson was one of only 80 astronauts qualified for space. It is an elite group that former astronaut John Creighton called America's "humble heroes."

Had it not been for the loss of Columbia, Anderson's brand of heroism likely would have stayed largely unknown to any but close family and friends.

"It's a funny thing," his widow said. "Sometimes, until a death happens, you can't see the whole picture of somebody's life."

People instead knew Michael Anderson in snapshots. His church friends say he didn't talk much about NASA. His pilot friends say he didn't talk much about God.

He once told a friend that the loss of privacy was the worst part of being an astronaut.

His goal: space

Much has been made of Anderson's boyhood dreams of space.

But calling it a dream almost underplays it. It was a goal for Anderson. A mission. Everything in his life was used as fuel, from the racism he heard about from his elders and saw in Spokane, to the deep religious beliefs that followed him to Houston and comforted him in space.

"How much more focused can you be? Everything he did from the age of 5 was to become an astronaut," said his mother-in-law, Mabel Hawkins of Spokane.

Anderson was short, about 5 feet 5 inches, and remembered from his days at Cheney High School as skinny and serious, tilting toward nerdy, with a good-sized, classic '70s Afro. That was especially memorable, since Anderson was one of four blacks in a class of 210. He brought model planes to calculus class, explaining to other students how the planes worked, and what size engine propelled them. He mowed his parents' lawn with swim goggles on, to protect his eyes.

Anderson's best childhood friend, Keith Flamer, remembers that racial epithets would sometimes be hurled at the black kids in the halls. Flamer's own tense exchanges with white students sometimes flared into fights.

Anderson would step in and pull away his bigger, more athletic friend.

"Although he was very conscious of race, he was very conscious that there be no conflict," Flamer said.

Anderson would fume privately to Flamer and another black friend about the racism. "But he was so balanced, it would stop at a point and not manifest in violence," Flamer said. "We knew we always had to outperform to be seen as even."

The effort to transcend race echoed throughout Anderson's life. As an enlisted Air Force man stationed at bases in the South, his father, Bobbie Anderson, was sometimes barred from hotels when he traveled, even while in uniform. He was forced to sleep in his car and buy food from the back doors of restaurants, said the Rev. Freeman Simmons, a family friend and minister at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Spokane.

Simmons' own ancestors had worked as sharecroppers for white landlords. And Michael Anderson's father-in-law, Henry Hawkins, was with a segregated unit in World War II, where he gassed up planes in the Pacific theater.

But for Anderson and his few black friends, growing up in the white, small-town atmosphere of Spokane, buffered by a close-knit black church community, proved a good training ground.

Flamer went on to become a Marine and now is a dean at McHenry College near Chicago.

Anderson went on to college at the University of Washington, to become a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and, finally, to NASA.

The small-town atmosphere taught them to exist in a black world and a white world, Flamer said. "Mike was good at being able to bridge all the worlds. He had to do that in order to succeed."

If Anderson moved slightly apart from others in school, he found a home in church. Family friends say the Andersons never missed a Sunday service at Morning Star. Michael Anderson formally accepted his parents' deep Christian beliefs at age 12.

"Mike became very serious about what happens after you die," Flamer said.

But Anderson also told his friend that church was a great place to meet girls.

He had known Sandra Hawkins from Sunday school classes back in middle school. It wasn't until years later — when he was in the Air Force and she was working as a nurse — that a romance blossomed.

On a trip back home, Anderson took Sandra on a tour of Spokane's romantic parks. "All of a sudden something changed," said Sandra's mother, Mabel Hawkins. "She saw him in a different light."

'An inner drive'

Anderson had joined the Air Force and attended UW as a member of the ROTC. He graduated in 1981 with a degree in physics and astronomy and was commissioned a second lieutenant.

He was tapped for pilot training, then sent to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb. There, he was assigned to the Strategic Air Command's airborne-command post, code-named "Looking Glass."

At the same time, he enrolled at Creighton University to get a master's degree in physics.

Anderson had "an inner drive to excel, to find out what was going on in nature, find out what makes things tick," said Father Tom McShane, a Jesuit and assistant professor of physics at Creighton. He directed Anderson's graduate research of pattern recognition and brain waves in chinchillas.

"He wasn't a Type A personality. He was intense in sort of a relaxed way," McShane said. "He didn't make a big deal out of things."

NASA application

He didn't even make a big deal out of big things.

His parents found out about his Air Force promotions only because of documents sent to their Spokane home.

After 14 years in the Air Force, Anderson, then stationed in Plattsburgh, N.Y., became concerned his career was stalling. He applied for a coveted spot at NASA. He didn't try to be a shuttle pilot because the pilots didn't get to spacewalk.

"He wanted to be able to detach himself from the confines of the shuttle," said friend Scott Kirk, a Navy flight instructor who met Anderson when they both landed practice flights at a remote Louisiana airfield. (They picked the spot for the all-you-can-eat-for-$1 gumbo and jambalaya.)

"He wanted to put together a piece of the space station," Kirk said.

NASA tapped Anderson in December 1994. He delivered the news to his in-laws matter-of-factly.

"If you wanted to find out something about Mike, you had to find it out from someone else," Mabel Hawkins said.

Finally, an astronaut

Anderson reported for duty at Johnson Space Center in Houston in March 1995, his wife and two daughters with him. There, he joined one of the most storied chapters of aviation history.

In the 1960s, the fighter pilots who became America's first astronauts played as hard as they worked to beat the Soviet Union in the space race. They became the stuff of legend, strapped into barely tamed rockets with little room for more than the engines and fuel it took to get them to space and back for an ocean splashdown.

Today's space shuttle is a more civilized vehicle, packed with science experiments and spare parts and new crew for the space station.

"Now we have mission specialists — backseaters who aren't responsible for piloting, but responsible for other things," said George "Pinky" Nelson, who flew three space missions and served on NASA's selection board. He is a professor of physics and astronomy at Western Washington University.

Some of the shuttle pilots still fit the cocky, brash astronaut stereotype of yore. But today, he said, most astronauts are "a combination of that old stereotype with the nerd."

On board the Columbia with Anderson were two medical doctors, engineers, a test pilot, a fighter jet pilot and a doctor of philosophy in aerospace engineering.

Choosing astronauts is "probably the most competitive selection process in the United States," said Creighton, the former astronaut.

When Creighton interviewed in 1977, he competed with thousands of others who had met the academic and flying requirements. NASA culled 300 to interview, and chose just 35.

It is usually the "humble heroes" who made it, he said. "Maybe if you're a little humble, they feel you'll get along with people better — no super-egos to get in the way."

Michael Anderson took that approach through high school and college and into that elite corps. His first trip to space came in January 1998, when space shuttle Endeavour headed to the Mir space station to deliver 9,000 pounds of scientific equipment and to drop off a new crew member.

From space, Anderson sent friends this e-mail:

Mir is hard to describe, but looking at it attached to our shuttle against the backdrop of the earth is simply unbelievable. Speaking of the Earth, it's hard to take your eyes off it. I can't get over seeing the curvature, and the thin layer of atmosphere that keeps us alive. Days on orbit are long and hard, but you don't care. This is what you've worked for and you want to make it as productive as possible. Well it's time to go work on my GPS experiments. Keep us in your prayers.

At home in Houston

The changes in the space program that gave birth to a new generation of astronauts have also changed the place most of them call home. Houston is no longer the wild and woolly place of pre-launch beer bashes that marked the early years of space travel. (Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin recently, at age 72, punched a man in the face who had challenged whether the moon landing was faked.)

Once all glitz and money, Houston now shows the wear of too many booms and busts. Garish billboards line the many freeways, advertising plastic surgeons and strip bars. There's NASA Liquors, Space Cleaners and, near the church Anderson attended there, Space Center Orthodontics, whose owner was the victim in a sensational murder trial under way last week. (The TV news calls it "Murder by Mercedes.")

It's hard to imagine Anderson any more comfortable in Houston than in Spokane as a youth. But once again, he found a home in church.

"He was very concerned about our country and the moral situation of our country," said Eddie Carroll, a drywall contractor who would gather each week with Anderson and astronaut Rick Husband, the shuttle's commander, to pray. When the Andersons first moved to Houston, they joined a small church led by Pastor John Starr.

"He realized God had given him a great gift, an opportunity to influence so many for Christ," Starr said of Anderson.

The couple soon moved to the much larger Grace Community Church. The more outgoing Husband was the better known of the two astronauts at Grace. He sang in the choir with a beautiful and powerful tenor.

Five thousand people worship in the sprawling colonial building that has grown too small for Grace Community — the largest congregation in Houston. A new Home Depot-size church is being built right along the freeway.

At 6:30 a.m. on Wednesdays, Anderson, Husband and Carroll would pull down three folding chairs in the gym. Husband would set up an erasable board with a list of things to pray about. They often focused on children at the church school they felt needed help.

"He prayed quietly. He was very organized the way he prayed," Carroll said of Anderson.

There was little talk of space travel. But on occasion, Husband or Anderson would say, "If something were to happen ... "

"They'd never refer to it any other way than that," Carroll said. "They wanted to make sure their children and wives were taken care of. They knew one little thing could go wrong, and they're history."

Shortly before the Columbia launch, Anderson's parents flew to Houston to see him. He told his father, "I know I have everything right with my savior."

Carroll said the two astronauts seemed to relish the quiet prayer time in the gym.

"Their lives were programmed daily," Carroll said at church last week. "When they left here, NASA took over."

Life of discipline

There is a sense around the space program that NASA has a far reach into the lives of its stars. Anderson was as disciplined in carrying out the image NASA wanted of the space corps as he was as a student doing science experiments or a scientist delving into theoretical physics.

"It was neat to get him out of character," Kirk, the Navy flight instructor, said of Anderson.

But when that happened, it simply meant a louder laugh, or candid talk about his love for his family.

"He was the consummate astronaut, maybe watching every word he said and projecting the image NASA wants astronauts to project," Kirk said.

Friends say Anderson never swore. And he smiled a lot. He can be seen grinning broadly in most of the Columbia photos taken during the flight.

Astronaut Yvonne Cagle spent a week with Anderson in an isolation chamber during training.

"Although we were isolated from even the weather, every morning we had a sunrise because Michael was always the first one up and greeted us with his smile," she said.

But if Anderson found a home with NASA and another with his church, he also had one with the African-American community. He often visited inner-city schools and black churches in the Houston area to share his story.

When he was interviewed from space during the Columbia mission, he spoke of the importance to blacks of medical research being done on the mission.

And he became active in the Bronze Eagles, a group that encourages young African Americans to pursue aviation careers. Among the few personal effects Anderson brought on board Columbia were a hat and T-shirt from the group and a book commemorating his Spokane pastor's work with black kids.

"It was absolutely great to have an African American interested in what we do and that was not above us," said Jim Brown, president of the Bronze Eagles. "He was cool, mild-mannered and the kids understood that."

Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said black astronauts "are unique and special people for our community." A member of Congress' space committee, Jackson Lee holds an annual Christmas party for children that features astronauts, who prove to be more popular than Santa Claus.

Focus on work

Anderson kept his private life private. He is universally praised by friends and co-workers, and even President Bush, for his commitment to his family.

But those closest to him worried he put too much into his job. Even at the expense of time with his wife and two daughters, Kaycee, 9, and Sydney, 11, he aimed at space.

At home, he shared in parenting when he could, changing diapers and spending time off with the children in Houston pools.

But it was hard for him to stop working.

"When he came home, he'd come in, kiss his wife and kids, and go to work in his (home) office," his father-in-law said. Last Thanksgiving Day he went to work even though his mother was visiting from Spokane.

Barbara Anderson once told the family's minister: "If he had to choose, it'd be his job."

Anderson's wife accepted that dedication.

"Something I came to admire was his total commitment to whatever he was doing," Sandra Anderson said. "He just was a person that was very focused."

She told their Houston congregation that she and her daughters are doing OK in the days following the accident.

She takes comfort from Anderson's faith in God. And she has accepted that everything was going by a plan. There was the deep pain of grief, to be sure. But she said a seed had been planted with Anderson's one-way flight to space.

"We're going to watch and see what grows and becomes of this," she said. "And I'm expecting good things."

Seattle Times reporter Janet I. Tu contributed to this report.

David Postman:360-943-9882, or dpostman@seattletimes.com.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605, or jonathanmartin@seattletimes.com.