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Even from space, Anne McClain stays tethered to young people in Spokane

Astronaut Anne McClain speaks onstage during the Spokane Symphony's "50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing" at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. McClain was the guest speaker, along with Jose Francisco Salgado who creates visual effects from night and lunar photography, while Roger Kalia conducted the Spokane Symphony Orchestra's music. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Astronaut Anne McClain speaks onstage during the Spokane Symphony's "50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing" at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. McClain was the guest speaker, along with Jose Francisco Salgado who creates visual effects from night and lunar photography, while Roger Kalia conducted the Spokane Symphony Orchestra's music. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

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When Ned McEwen was a sophomore at Gonzaga Prep, a VIP alumni came to visit: Anne McClain, class of ’97.

McClain had not yet broken the bonds of Earth as an astronaut, had not yet taken her famous space selfie or been the subject of a “Saturday Night Live” skit. But her record of achievement was extraordinary. West Point grad and international scholar. National class athlete in rugby and softball. Decorated Army helicopter pilot and officer. On and on and on …

McEwen realized McClain’s path – the road of discipline and self-improvement as a form of service to the country – began at Prep.

Right where his path was beginning.

“It really showed that I could do the same thing,” said McEwen, 18. “I had never even heard of a military academy at that point.”

Gonzaga Prep students Rigee Olavides, 16, Ned McEwen, 17, and Molly Niedermeyer, 18,  watch live NASA video as the Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut, Spokane native and Gonzaga Prep alumna, Lt. Col. Anne McClain just before docking with the International Space Station, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Prep students Rigee Olavides, 16, Ned McEwen, 17, and Molly Niedermeyer, 18, watch live NASA video as the Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut, Spokane native and Gonzaga Prep alumna, Lt. Col. Anne McClain just before docking with the International Space Station, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Today, McEwen is home on break from his first year at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he intends to study to be a mechanical engineer. That visit from McClain several years ago was just one of the times McEwen and his fellow students at Gongaza Prep heard from McClain over the years.

Even as she went to space and became internationally famous as an ambassador for NASA and space exploration, McClain remained tethered to Prep and Spokane. She even video-chatted with Prep students from space, and visited them, along with students from other schools citywide, upon her return to Earth.

It is not, in McClain’s view, a mere sideline to her main job.

“That is one of the products of our space program: inspiration and motivation,” McClain said last week. “My space flight wasn’t mine. It’s yours. It’s everybody’s. It’s everybody’s who’s reading this article. It’s everybody’s on Earth. It’s their space mission. I have to share it.”

McClain has rocketed to worldwide fame over the past year as a member of the Expedition 58 and 59 to the International Space Station. She spent 204 days in space and went on two space walks that amounted to more than 13 hours. In the months since she returned to Earth in June, she’s been undergoing medical tests, participating in debriefings and doing outreach around the country.

She was due to be a member of the first all-female space walk but NASA scrubbed the mission because they didn’t have the right-sized spacesuits.

When McClain visited McEwen’s sophomore class, though, her career had operated entirely in Earth’s gravity.

She had been a Marshall scholar in England after graduating from West Point in 2002, and she earned a pair of master’s degrees overseas. She was commissioned as an Army officer, and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. She published research on aerodynamics, security in developing countries and other subjects.

In the Iraq War, she flew 216 combat missions – more than 800 hours in all. She’s a senior Army aviator with more than 2,000 hours of flying 20 different forms of aircraft. She was awarded the Bronze Star, which heads a long list of military honors, and she was a distinguished graduate of seemingly every course and school in the Army.

“What gets lost in her story is how much she served in the military, and how many missions she flew,” said Shari Manikowski, McClain’s former math teacher and softball coach at Gonzaga Prep. “She’s done so much to serve her country.”

Space was always her goal. As a very young child, McClain had seen astronauts and moon launches at home on TV. It was part and parcel of growing up in a family with a mother who was a science teacher.

This detail of a July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows astronaut Neil Armstrong reflected in the helmet visor of Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon. The astronauts had a camera mounted to the front of their suits, according to the Universities Space Research Association. So rather than holding the camera up to his eye, as we’re accustomed to, Armstrong would have taken the photos from near his chest, which is where Armstrong’s hands appear to be in his reflection. (Neil Armstrong/NASA / Associated Press)
This detail of a July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows astronaut Neil Armstrong reflected in the helmet visor of Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon. The astronauts had a camera mounted to the front of their suits, according to the Universities Space Research Association. So rather than holding the camera up to his eye, as we’re accustomed to, Armstrong would have taken the photos from near his chest, which is where Armstrong’s hands appear to be in his reflection. (Neil Armstrong/NASA / Associated Press)

“Anything that launched, anything that went to the moon and back … all of that, we always watched it when she was little,” said Charlotte Lamp, Anne’s mother.

And so, when she began preschool, Anne had already settled on a career path.

“She said, ‘Mom, I’m going to school to learn to be an astronaut,’ ” Lamp said.

“All we want for our children is to launch successfully. I didn’t mean for her to take it literally.”

— Charlotte Lamp, Anne McClain’s mother

McClain grew up in Spokane, attending parochial schools, playing sports and never wavering in her dreams of space.

By the time she graduated from high school, she recognized her goal was extraordinarily ambitious, and two important precepts began to guide her: the understanding she would have to work very hard to get where she wanted to be, and the understanding even if she did that, she might not achieve it.

She chose an Army career in part because, if she never became an astronaut, she would still be able to be a helicopter pilot, she said.

It was a pathway that required intense devotion. And McClain – whose nickname from her rugby days is “Annimal” – has that in spades.

“It’s not as simple as dream big and your dreams will come true,” she said in a Thursday interview. “It’s just not that simple. It’s dream big and then spend 20 years missing holidays, moving to cities that you don’t know, working with people that you don’t know, taking jobs that you don’t want but having to excel anyway, and doing the extra credit and getting up at 5 o’clock on a Tuesday to hit the gym when everybody else is sleeping in, and skipping parties, skipping trips, missing weddings – and then your dream might come true.”

Manikowski said McClain’s determination was apparent early on.

“She worked as hard or harder than any student I’ve ever had,” she said.

Lamp said that as a girl, McClain was active and energetic, curious and optimistic.

“She always wanted to see further, go further,” she said.

Go further she did, gathering challenges and honors along the way for 16 years after leaving Spokane. And in 2013, around the same time she was graduating from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, the first step in the lifelong dream came true: She was selected by NASA as one of eight members of the 21st astronaut class.

Lamp was out gardening when her daughter called her with the news.

“She said, ‘Where are you?’ ” Lamp said. “I said, ‘I’m out pruning the roses.’ She said, ‘Are you sitting?’ ”

“I kind of screamed.”

“Sometimes we explore just so we can look back at where we came from and understand the context in which we live.”

— Anne McClain

The next step, following five more years of that intense training and work McClain talks about, came around this time last year. As part of an international crew of astronauts, McClain launched into space.

Expedition 58 and 59 conducted hundreds of research projects on the space station in biology, biotech and other disciplines, including investigating small devices that replicate human organs and editing DNA in space for the first time.

McClain was a trailblazer in a couple other ways, as well. She was expecting to participate in the first all-female space walk in history before problems with the suits forced her to scrap it.

The space-suit kerfuffle and McClain’s stiff-upper-lip response to it became the basis for a skit on “SNL,” in which Aidy Bryant pretended to be McClain trying to cheerfully subdue her outrage. McClain tweeted from space: “I am still laughing about this, and Aidy, your uniform looks impeccable!”

McClain also became, in an awkward and roundabout way, the first out LGBTQ astronaut in history, when a divorce dispute with her former wife became public. McClain was accused of improperly accessing her ex’s bank records from space, but everything so far points to a misunderstanding and not malfeasance.

While at the space station, McClain floatingly conducted interviews with CNN and other media outlets on Earth. It was the beginning of her becoming more well-known internationally, and becoming a more prominent ambassador for space exploration and for NASA.

“You get this amazing perspective when you’re up there about how reliant we are on one other and how everyone you meet you have more in common with than you do differences,” she said.

She’s spoken in interviews about the beauty of space, and the mind-bending view down upon Earth – where everyone you’ve ever known lives and where everything that ever happened to you happened.

“It’s overwhelming, it’s awe-inspiring, it’s a view I wish every person on Earth could have so we could understand our home better,” she told CNN.

Along the way, Manikowski’s students and others were tracking McClain’s mission from Earth. In February 2019, she did a live chat with Prep students from the space station. McEwen was a part of that event as well. At the time, he intended to enroll at the Naval Academy, and was just a matter of months away from graduating and heading off to the next step in his education.

Seeing her in space, he told a reporter at the time, “really shows me I think I’m going down the right path right now.”

“In our astronaut mindset, Earth is home. It didn’t matter what point on Earth we landed in and it didn’t even matter which humans were standing outside the vehicle. This was our planet and those were my family – those were my fellow human beings.”

— Anne McClain

McClain’s crew returned to Earth in June 2019, landing in Kazakhstan. The return from space is a physical ordeal. After months living in zero gravity, the astronauts’ return to Earth plunges them into a period of gravitational force that is four-and-a-half times Earth’s gravity.

McClain recalls the intense return of gravity as the Soyuz MS-11 entered the plasma layer.

“I thought … we must be getting close to that four-and-a-half times the force of gravity – four-and-a-half Gs we call it,” McClain said.

She took a peek at the gravity meter and saw that not only was it not close to 4.5 – it was at 0.4.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not even to my own body weight yet and I feel like I have an elephant standing on me,’ ” she said.

After plunging through the plasma layer, the force eases and the craft begins a free fall with a “spinny cup sensation at the fair” feel to it.

“I found that to be a lot of fun, honestly,” she said.

Then, Earth. Home.

“It starts to sink in that this whole space flight mission that carried risk – you just did it, and you’re going to be one of the people who gets to walk around on Earth and say you’ve been to space,” she said.

McClain entered a six-month period of post-flight testing and debriefings. Finally, in October, she got some time off. That’s about to come to an end, and she’ll be returning to her regular duties – continued training to prepare for possible space missions and carrying our her ground assignments.

McClain gets a lot of questions about the Artemis mission, which has the goal of landing “the first woman and next man” on the moon by 2024. There are a dozen female astronauts who qualify, and McClain’s been named more than once in speculative reporting about the possible crew members.

“Those decisions are made above me, for sure,” she said. “You and I will probably find out not too far apart when those names are going to be put to that mission.”

“Girls and boys did the same things. When I said I wanted to be an astronaut, nobody batted an eye.”

— Anne McClain

It’s not typical for a crew to be named five years before a mission – it’s usually two – but it’s possible a larger cadre of possible crew members would be named in advance, or that this mission would follow a different schedule. She’d love to go, obviously, but emphasized there are a lot of considerations and 50 or so other candidates.

“That’d be a dream mission, absolutely, and I’m in an office with a lot of people who think the same thing,” she said. “To be honest, my career so far and getting the flight I did earlier this year was a dream come true. Everything else is how much icing is going to be on the cake?”

McClain’s achievements are sometimes cast in terms of firsts, as a woman of great achievements in fields that have historically been male-dominated. McClain said that growing up in Spokane, she was never told she couldn’t be an astronaut because she was a girl – something for which she credits her family and friends.

Anne McClain. (NASA / Associated Press)
Anne McClain. (NASA / Associated Press)

Throughout her career as a military officer and astronaut, she said her gender has never been an issue. She was treated as an equal and judged on her merits, she said. But she’s come to appreciate how the women who came before her helped make it possible for her to achieve her dreams.

Now, when she talks to students in Spokane and around the country, students like Ned McEwen and his Gonzaga Prep classmates, she’s helping to lay the foundation for the next generation.

“When I go out now, it’s not just little girls that are looking up to me,” she said. “I talk to girls and boys. And they both look at me and say, ‘I want to do what you’re doing.’ ”

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