As a teenager, NASA astronaut Anne McClain was all smiles and all over the place, with the help of her bike.
“I’d see her on the South Hill and then I’d see her up north and then I’d see her out in the Valley,” said Denise Schlepp, McClain’s teacher at Gonzaga Preparatory School who retired in 2018. “She’d ride her bike all over everywhere and I’d think, ‘How?’ She was a crazy kid. All in the same day!”
Schlepp is one of the teachers McClain credits with encouraging her to pursue her dream to be an astronaut – a goal she firmly established at age 3.
“I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who were encouraging,” McClain said. “The thing is, when you tell a little kid that they can do something, they’re going to listen, and likewise, if you tell them that they can’t do something, then they’re going to listen.”
Even as a child, McClain was laser-focused on her goals, said Shari Manikowski, Gonzaga Prep math teacher.
“It’s very unusual to have somebody who has been that focused on a goal and stuck with it,” Manikowski said. “What makes me happiest is to see … her living her dream, and to be so exuberant about it is an incredible experience for me.”
After 204 days in space, McClain returned to Earth on June 24, and she said the experience of actually living in space made her want to go back even more.
“It was awesome, and I highly recommend it,” McClain said. “One of the special things to me was we got so accustomed to living in outer space that we weren’t thinking about it anymore.”
There was controversy when a planned all-female space walk with McClain and Christina Koch was canceled due to a lack of appropriately sized space suits, but McClain saw it as an opportunity for the public to understand the complexity of their equipment.
“It’s not as simple as throwing on a pair of jeans that fits and go into space and using them,” McClain said. “A space suit is a small spacecraft; it is just as expensive to develop and maintain.”
McClain said she never wants to discourage questions or curiosity and was thrilled this would be a learning experience for the space program, which is developing suits that would fit a variety of body types and sizes.
“We understand there was some disappointment with the fact that two female crew members weren’t paired up together,” McClain said. “But everybody did the same amount of space walks as planned.”
McClain credits rugby with an important skill that makes her successful as an astronaut. She was introduced to the sport during her short time at Gonzaga University. She went on to play professionally for Women’s Premiership in the United Kingdom while pursuing a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Bath and a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Bristol.
“It absolutely was an influencer on my job and on my career and my personality,” McClain said. “I think that you don’t know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice, and that’s something that you learn in the 78th minute of a rugby match.”
She also played for the U.S. women’s national rugby union team.
Both Gonzaga Prep teachers said McClain’s accomplishments are phenomenal, but pale in comparison to who she is as a person. Manikowski said McClain is a “game changer.”
“When you see the passion at which she masters all of it, and shares all of who she is with everyone …” Schlepp said. “She’s like no one I’ve met. Love her dearly, and very glad that she continues to let us be a part of this amazing journey.”
Manikowski was able to observe McClain’s journey to the International Space Station from Houston and said McClain made the experience special for her, down to the last detail. The teachers also did their part to make space special for McClain, sending her early birthday cards with NASA so McClain could open them during her birthday in space.
Schlepp remembered watching the footage of the launch over and over while crying.
“I cried just because of the amazingness of it,” Schlepp said. “I did the same thing on her return. I’m watching on NASA TV on my iPad …. When she landed it was just this big relief of ‘She made it.’ ”
Both women prayed for her safety, with Michael Anderson, the NASA astronaut from Spokane who died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster in February 2003, in mind. McClain said she was glad Spokane installed a statue of him and that it was important to honor his legacy.
“(Anderson) is a testament to not only what you can achieve, but the price of exploration,” McClain said.
Manikowski said she rounded up her entire neighborhood during International Space Station flyovers.
“We’d spot the space station and then I’d always say a little prayer for her safety,” Manikowski said.
Both women remarked that when McClain stepped out after the landing, she was all smiles – no surprise there.
“She came out with this big smile on her face and her hand in the air,” Schlepp said. “That’s her typical response to anything is she turns everything into a positive.”
Schlepp and Manikowski haven’t stopped believing McClain can soar even higher.
“I would not be surprised if she was to be the first woman to the moon,” Manikowski said. “That’s just coming from me, it’s not coming from any source or anything …. She’s just that amazing.”
McClain said she looks forward to NASA putting boots on the moon in 2024, and no matter who is picked, it will be a win.
“Quite honestly, I work with some of the best people that I’ve ever met in my life,” McClain said. “Of course there’s that possibility that it could be me, but it’s almost a guarantee that it’s going to be one of my closest friends, and so there’s no bad news there.”