Michael Anderson says he doesn’t mind not being a household name.
“I’m sure that would be tiring.”
And you pretty much have to believe him. Because the 1977 Cheney High School graduate has what he’s always wanted, one of the world’s most exclusive job titles - astronaut.
Once that meant top-rung celebrity status. Now it means, well, something else.
That’s OK with the man who lists Spokane as his hometown on his NASA bio sheet.
“Fame is completely irrelevant,” he said, sounding genuinely cheerful. “For me, this is exciting and I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else. This is what I’ve wanted to do since before I knew what fame was.”
Anderson, whose parents stayed in Spokane after his dad retired from the Air Force in 1977, is part of a space shuttle crew scheduled to be launched into orbit Thursday night. It will be his first NASA mission. And it almost certainly will be the first time an astronaut has carried aloft a Cheney High Blackhawks banner as well as a city of Spokane banner.
He’s ready, he said in a telephone interview.
“When you see the vehicle sitting on the launch pad and see people preparing it for flight, it really hits you.”
Of course, Anderson has been preparing for this moment a long time.
“He was one of the quiet ones,” said Lawson Van Kuren, who taught advanced math classes when Anderson was at Cheney High.
One of the quiet ones who recognized early on the link between scholastic achievement and opportunity. “I was part of a group of kids that just seemed fired up about the academic side of high school,” he recalled.
The Andersons moved to Spokane when Michael was 11.
Before joining the Air Force himself, he graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in physics/astronomy. (Another UW alum, space veteran Bonnie Dunbar, is on his crew.)
In 1994, he was stationed at an Air Force base in New York state. He was piloting air-refueling tankers and had just received orders transferring him to Fairchild AFB.
Naturally, his parents were thrilled. (Grandbaby access figures in here, too.) But soon after that announcement, he phoned and woke them up early one morning with another bit of news.
NASA had accepted him. He was moving to Houston.
His mother, Barbara, said no one who knew her son was surprised.
“He was always somewhat different from most kids,” she said. “I mean, when everybody else was off playing or doing whatever, he was inside doing experiments with his chemistry set or studying some sort of electronics.”
Nobody forced him.
“He had a belief that whatever he wanted to accomplish, he could accomplish,” she added.
Michael Anderson, born on Christmas Day in 1959, was nothing if not focused.
But his wife insists that anyone conjuring visions of a humorless grind is missing the real picture. They aren’t seeing the guy who likes taking his two daughters to the park or tinkering with his car.
“He was always serious, but he wasn’t a stick in the mud,” said Sandra Hawkins Anderson (Ferris High, ‘74). “He’s just very unassuming.”
Anderson himself chuckles at the suggestion that some might be tempted to view him as an impossibly square straight arrow.
Asked if he has ever gotten a speeding ticket, he laughed and admitted that he hasn’t. But he quickly added, “That just means I make good decisions.”
He has retained the rank of major in the Air Force. But at NASA, he insists that people call him “Mike.”
In the upcoming shuttle mission, he will play a key role during the rendezvous and docking with the problem-plagued Russian space station Mir. In addition, Anderson will help conduct scientific experiments, including some that deal with the feasibility of raising fish as a food source to be used during long-duration space missions.
Though Anderson will visit the Mir, he will be coming back to Earth on the space shuttle at the conclusion of the planned nine-day mission.
That’s fine with his mom. But his father, Bobbie, said that staying on the Mir and helping to cope with its seemingly endless problems would be just the sort of challenge his son relishes.
The Andersons will be in Florida to observe the fiery launch of the Endeavour.
“I just hope it’s not more than I’m ready for,” said Barbara Anderson.
Her son has never said, “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about,” for one simple reason. He knows that’s not the truth.
Besides, pilots don’t talk like that.
“There’s always something unexpected that can happen,” said the rookie astronaut. “But I think you prepare for that by realizing that the benefits are worth the risk.”
He’s doing what he wants, his mom said.
“And this isn’t the end,” she said. “He’s looking to go to Mars.”
But before that, school officials in Cheney are already planning Michael Anderson Day. They hope he can be there for the event some day this spring.
“Sounds like fun,” said Anderson.
Start the countdown.
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