Like many children, Anne McClain wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up. It’s a dream that falls by the wayside for most, but McClain stuck with it and made it happen.
“I first told my parents when I was 3,” McClain said of her early dream. “My parents were super supportive. They talked to me about how to make it happen.”
Only a small number of people are chosen to be astronauts, but McClain was tenacious. “Sticking with it is always the hardest part,” she said. “I had 1,000 reasons to stop moving forward, stop trying.”
Not only did she achieve her goal, but she spent 204 days living on the International Space Station in orbit above Earth. She participated in two spacewalks and helped conduct hundreds of experiments, returning to Earth on June 24.
McClain will be awarded the YWCA Women of Achievement award in science, technology and environment this week. She is one of 10 women selected to receive a Women of Achievement award at the organization’s annual luncheon Friday at the Spokane Convention Center.
McClain grew up in Spokane and graduated from Gonzaga Prep in 1997. She still has close ties to the school and has spoken there in person. She also spoke to students there while she was in space.
She attended Spokane Community College, and joined the ROTC program at Gonzaga University while awaiting an appointment to West Point. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aeronautical engineering from West Point in 2002 and was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army. She earned master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Bath in Bath, England, and international relations from the University of Bristol in Bristol, England.
McClain became an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout and attack helicopter pilot and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, flying more than 200 combat missions. She later was a flight instructor and trained to be a test pilot. She is a lieutenant colonel. She was selected by NASA for training as an astronaut in 2013, according to the agency’s biography of McClain. She was the youngest astronaut in the program.
She said she knew that joining the military could help her attain her ultimate goal of being an astronaut, but that’s not why she did it. She said she wanted to do something she enjoyed just in case she was never able to become an astronaut.
“Being in the military is about serving the nation and serving the soldiers you’re in charge of,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily a steppingstone.”
A new class of astronauts is selected every four or five years and she applied in 2011. The selection process took two years. “I applied along with 6,300 other people,” she said. “It’s kind of quiet for a while and you don’t know what’s happening.”
Once the field is narrowed, references are interviewed. After that the number of applicants is culled to the top 100, who are interviewed and undergo rigorous medical testing. The top 50 candidates are selected for a weeklong interview process. “After that again it gets quiet,” she said.
McClain had just finished test pilot school in 2013 when she learned her dream was about to come true. “For me it was such a culmination of what I wanted and what I worked for,” she said. “I was just so excited.”
McClain said she knows that as a female astronaut she is a role model for young women, but said she and her fellow astronauts never think about gender. It’s usually the media or the public who ask about it, she said.
McClain noted she served in combat, where reputation is built on what you do, not who you are. “You learn quickly that stereotypes don’t matter,” she said. “Gender doesn’t matter, religion doesn’t matter. The exact same thing is required of everybody. The details and the precision and the danger are the same for everyone.”
Inspiring the next generation, girls as well as boys, is important to her. “It is part of our job,” she said. “NASA is America’s program. It has been an inspiration for the nation and the whole world.”
That’s why McClain enjoys speaking to students, particularly students at Gonzaga Prep. She wants to tell them that she sat where they are and was able to accomplish her dreams. “It is so special to go back to Spokane and sit in the same classroom and sit in the same gym,” she said.
McClain said she does not know who nominated her for the Women of Achievement Award but said she’s pleased to be in a group of such accomplished women. “When I looked at the other awardees I was just humbled to be included with them,” she said.
She said she is grateful for the award because it comes from an organization in her hometown.
“It has just been so great to represent Spokane,” she said.