GearCrave Dream Job Interview: Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson

GearCrave Dream Job Interview: Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson

For most of us, life didn’t turn out exactly the way we had planned as children. Your GearCrave editor just knew he was going to be a rock star, or maybe even President. Friends of ours were to be famous athletes, hero firefighters, a-list actors. While many of us may not have achieved the dream jobs we had as children, GearCrave knows a few who have. For the first in a series of interviews with inspiring people who did achieve those dreams, GearCrave sat down with Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson.

Out of 95 active-duty Astronauts in the US, not many actually get the chance to go into orbit. There are as few as one shuttle mission per year, three or four at best. Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson has earned himself quite a distinction: in 2007, he spent 5 months in space aboard the International Space Station. For those who shared Clayton’s dream of space flight as a child, you’ll find his story quite engaging and inspirational. Continue reading, GearCravers, to see life through the eyes of one of America’s heroes, NASA Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson.

The Dream Job

First, its common for children to dream of such careers as Firefighter, President, Athlete or Astronaut. Its likely that no young child dreams of growing up to be an accountant. At what age did the dream of life as an Astronaut strike you?

My mom and I argue this one a bit. She says 4-5 when she dressed me in aluminum foil and a hat box to be one of the Mercury Astronauts in my home town’s annual “Kiddie Parade!” I got second place and she says I “…was robbed!” My recollection was when I was 8 years old and my parents got my sister and brother and me out of bed to watch the Apollo 8 astronauts fly around the moon for the first time in history. When they lost comm., I was enthralled and scared…when they got it back as they emerged from the far side I was ecstatic; and decided then and there that I would become an astronaut.

Now that you’ve achieved that storied job title, is life as an Astronaut what you expected as a child?

Yes and no. Of course it is a thrill to be an astronaut and the opportunity to fly in space and represent my State of Nebraska and my Country was more than I could have ever dreamed of. However, there is a tremendous amount of stress (self-induced and otherwise!) that accompanies the job. That stress has been difficult for me and my family to overcome at times. The travel to other countries, the long training hours and, of course, the 5 months spent in space were difficult at times. Yet we survived and we believe are stronger as a family because of it.

At times, do you wish you were “just an accountant”?

Nope…never! I have wished for a “break” and a nice relaxing vacation at times, but having this job has been a thrill.

Briefly, what is a normal work week like for an Astronaut?

My training weeks were often varied, yet often the same! They were between 50-60 hours at times comprised of meetings, training classes…perhaps a dive in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) or a 6 hour NBL session to practice for an upcoming spacewalk. We may have a flight in a T-38 jet to attend a training class or meeting in another state. Perhaps there will be some medical tests or training that we must undertake. Undoubtedly there will be a simulation of some type during any given week once you are training for spaceflight.

Aside from the work you’ve done in space, what is your favorite part about the job?

My favorite part has to be talking to the public. I think it is truly important that we as astronauts go “on the road” to let people know why what we do is important and how it benefits all of us on the Planet Earth.

Astronaut Clayton C. Anderson in his “business suit”

The Work

On June 8th, 2007, you launched aboard the Shuttle Atlantis to dock with the International Space Station for a 152 day tour of duty. What was it like seeing that shuttle depart back to Earth without you?

It was tough indeed. At that point I was “staring” 5 (or more) months in space straight in the eyes! At that point I wasn’t sure what to expect or whether I could do it or not. It was a very surreal time for me. In addition, I was facing a long time away from my wife and children. That was the hardest part of the whole endeavour.

Your teammates aboard the ISS were Russian Cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov. How did the cultural differences between you and your “new roommates” impact your experience aboard the ISS?

They are two of the most intelligent, gentle and friendly men that I will ever have the pleasure to be associated with. In addition, they are family men, just like me. That was a key for us on orbit as that commonality of family really brought us together. We were the “Three Musketeers” in space and I said many times that I had found my “space brothers” on Expedition 15! To me, there were minimal cultural differences that ever manifested themselves onboard. In fact, some of our mealtime discussions were such that we were able to learn about each other’s cultures in a relaxed and informative environment.

In your off-time, what kind of entertainment did the three of you share aboard the ISS?

Oleg loved to listen to music. Oleg and Fyodor both loved to shoot pictures of the Earth and then sort through them and organize them. I enjoyed that as well, but with an electronic keyboard and guitar on board, I tried to write some piano music and teach myself how to play that guitar. I had minimal success at both, since there wasn’t much free time. We all enjoyed calling friends and family using the International Space Station’s Internet Protocol (IP) phone. On Fridays, we often gathered in the Russian Segment to watch a movie together.

During your tour of duty on the ISS, what level of connection did you have to the world below– your family, the news, entertainment and sports?

It was actually quite good. We had the IP phone, which is a huge psychological benefit as well as the ability to send and receive email (usually two to three times per day…very similar to what you would expect on Earth). Each weekend we were able to have a video conference with our family or friends that would last between 15 and 35 minutes. As for news, entertainment and sports…that was covered as well. Some of our favorite newspapers and periodicals were uplinked to us for reading as well as our favorite TV shows (Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, Seinfeld, NBC Nightly News, etc.) and movies. One of my most cherished times came when the ground would let me watch the Nebraska Cornhusker and Houston Texan football games (live) through our “KU Band” Satellite system. I felt like I was home in my recliner watching my favorite teams! Awesome!

You handled some heavy-duty operations aboard ISS– in your work on upgrading and repairing the ISS, what was the margin of error in your work? What amount of training for these procedures did you complete on the ground?

The ground training team prepares us very well for most of the major tasks we are expected to perform on orbit. However, with schedules being a bit flexible at times, they can’t cover everything. So, we often learn “skills” that will carry us through many different types of tasks, some which we may have never seen or practiced on the ground. This “skill based” training is critical to life onboard the ISS. The margin of error is not large, but it’s not small either. With the help of the team in the control centers in Houston, Huntsville (AL) and Moscow (along with the newly added ESA and JAXA control centers), we can usually cover and overcome any deficiencies in the training, procedures and task that come up. I trained for some 3.5 years before flying and many of the tasks I trained for were covered by previous crews while many we didn’t get to because other higher priority tasks appeared. Much of our time is spent in maintenance of the onboard systems as well as the adding of new capabilities.

Do you expect more space flights in your career?

I hope so. My wife and I have agreed that we could immediately accept a space shuttle assignment. These are typically 2 week missions, with about 9 months of training, the majority of which is done in the U. S.. So, Daddy (Hubby) could be home with the family for the majority of the time, thus minimizing the family “disruption.” Another ISS flight, which for me would mean a launch and landing in Russia (the Shuttle is to be retired in 2010, and an ISS assignment for me would be after that), is something that my entire family would have to discuss. With the ages of my kids (11 and 7) and the impact it would have on all of us, it requires some very serious family planning.

What is one technology we as non-astronauts have gained from the US Space Program that you couldn’t live without?

Cell phones are one that immediately jumps to mind. Now, whether we could “…live without it” or not is up to debate! I am sure that there are many folks that don’t like being “chained” to a cell phone! Portable power tools are another genre that have made Earthling’s lives much more efficient.

What is one technology from Science Fiction that you wish were to be in use today for NASA?

We need a transporter or warp drive! The transporter could have us beamed aboard the ISS for our work day and home in time for dinner! Warp drive would be essential to cutting down the travel time to Mars and beyond. Mars is currently a 6-9 month endeavour, just to reach the planet! Oh yeah…a Holo-deck would be nice!

How can we as Americans help to perpetuate this space program for future generations?

We need to convey its importance to all folks within the U. S. and the world. We need to make them understand that the technology development that we engage in as we aim for the heavens will directly benefit all the people of the Earth. The hard part here is that we, as a people, are into “instant gratification.” By that I mean that I believe we want very rapid payback. That just doesn’t happen…it takes time for new technologies to make it to the shelves of our favorite retail stores. The Apollo program gave us about a 7 to 1 payback in technology dollars. But, it took about 10 years for “Joe Citizen” to see that payback in the stores.

Finally, Americans need to understand that we, as taxpayers, spend less than 0.1 of 1% on the space program. Contrast that with we Texans, who spend more than that each year on lottery tickets…or the holiday of Halloween!!! The investment we make in our space program is important; it is important to all of us. If we can alter our mindsets to understand that we really don’t spend that much money on it and that we DO receive payback (over time) from it, I think that we can rest easier when it comes time to defend those expenditures in Congress. In the end, for me, it’s all about passion. The passion to grow as a species…to explore new worlds…just like the TV show said, “…to boldly go where no one has gone before!”

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Clayton. We admire the work you for NASA and will keep our eyes on your career. We wish you, your colleagues and comrades the best of luck in the future of space travel. If you ever want to give us a ride, let us know!