Talked to an American hero the other day.
West Point grad. Two master’s degrees, one in aerospace engineering, the other in international relations.
Fifteen months in Iraq piloting Kiowa Warrior helicopters armed with firepower like Hellfire missiles.
Bronze Star. Air Medal with Valor. Two Air Medals. Two Army Commendation Medals.
More than 800 combat hours on 216 combat missions.
Carries the rank of major.
Played on the USA’s rugby team. Graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School …
It would take another column to list all the accomplishments and commendations found in the official record.
But the cherry was put on top of this sundae earlier this month when NASA broke the news:
Spokane’s Anne McClain is an astronaut.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” said McClain, 36, one of eight in her class (four women and four men) who completed two years of the toughest training imaginable to earn their astronaut pins.
McClain, who lives in Houston and trains at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, added that whenever she comes back to Spokane she realizes just how far she’s come and how much she still loves her hometown.
Even better, “I grew up reading you,” she told me during our phone interview.
I believe that makes me part of the space program.
Funny how things work out.
I actually learned about this overachiever one winter’s day in 1998.
McClain’s mom and dad, Charlotte and Don Lamp, invited me to their South Hill home to watch the annual Army-Navy football game.
Anne was a West Point cadet at the time.
But for our TV party, the Lamps had also invited their neighbors, Sally and Tony Grabicki, who lived across the street.
Their son A.J. was a midshipman at the Naval Academy.
As you might guess, the good-natured parental rivalry I stumbled into made the Apple Cup look like a pillow fight.
Football isn’t what impressed me most about the day, however. Charlotte told me a story showing that, even back then, McClain had the Right Stuff.
While attending Gonzaga Prep, Anne had received her appointment to West Point through then-Rep. George Nethercutt.
Then calamity struck. Anne injured a foot playing softball. Her appointment expired while she was healing.
Tenacious Anne came up with another plan: enrolling in college and signing up for ROTC. She reapplied and was one of only 10 ROTC students selected to West Point.
And now she’s an astronaut.
One of the oft-repeated storylines that has followed Anne is how as a preschooler she announced to her mom that she was getting ready to go to the moon. She even made a cute book showing a family shopping for spacesuits and such.
But heck, playing the “I want to be an astronaut” card once was a fleeting pipe dream espoused by countless young rocketeers.
There was a time during the Space Age Sixties when even I wanted to be the next Alan Shepard or John Glenn.
As soon as I finished pitching a no-hitter in the World Series, that is.
The discipline and focus that it takes to actually follow through and live such a dream is truly otherworldly.
Get this: McClain and her seven teammates made it into the 2013 astronaut class out of 6,300 applicants.
How’d she do it?
Each step of the way through her career, no matter how daunting, Anne found a way to believe in herself.
“You can do it,” became her personal mantra.
Two years ago the call came while McClain was in test pilot school.
“We had so many qualified applicants,” the caller told her. “Congratulations on being one of the selected.”
The combat veteran was bowled over.
“I dropped to my knees. I was crying,” she said. “It was absolutely overwhelming.”
Then reality set in.
Two years of the most grueling rigorous training, what McClain calls a “cross between college and boot camp.”
Astronauts must master five disciplines: spacewalks, much of which take place in six-hour underwater work sessions; flying jet aircraft; learning all the space station systems; Russian language learning; and robotics training.
“Each category is tough,” she said, adding that getting through is also about time management. She credited her team members – dubbed the 8-Balls – for encouraging and pushing one another all the way.
It’s a rare existence seen from the inside by few.
Charlotte remembers visiting Anne in Houston. During a break, she said they were relaxing when Anne’s cellphone rang.
It was one of her astronaut pals calling to say hi from the International Space Station.
Charlotte said she gave her daughter a look of astonishment and then uttered:
“This is the life you lead? Don’t ever tell me you can’t call home.”
So what’s next?
Like every other astronaut, McClain itches to leave the planet.
With the space program not as booming, that’s more of a waiting game than it once was.
And so she stays at the ready, continuing her training and making the occasional NASA-approved appearances.
The dangers of the job are not lost on her, either.
McClain says she thinks often about honoring the memory of Michael P. Anderson, the Cheney High School grad who considered Spokane his home.
A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Anderson died along with six other astronauts when the space shuttle Columbia blew apart during entry over Texas in 2003.
A bronze statue of Anderson can be found in the breezeway behind the INB Performing Arts Center at Riverfront Park.
Yet it was obvious talking to McClain that her focus is on rewards, not risks.
“I still feel like I’m a 10-year-old telling people I want to be an astronaut,” she said.
In the end, well, I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask …
“Have you ever had a chance to say, ‘Houston, we have a problem!’?”
The astronaut paused a millisecond before wisecracking:
“Only when my son has a dirty diaper.”