The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut
© 2015 Clayton Anderson
Clay Anderson knew when he was nine years old that he wanted to grow up to be an astronaut.. He knew it when he witnessed the crew of Apollo 8 circling the Moon on Christmas Eve. His passion for the black took him to NASA first as an intern, and then as employee, where he worked for well over a decade before the last of his fifteen applications to the astronaut program proper landed him a spot in the class of 1996. The Ordinary Astronaut is a memoir of his years at NASA and in the shuttle program, one filled with interesting details but not much in the way of long-term perspective.
Ordinary Spaceman is primarily a work of human interest, since Anderson almost never refers to his scientific work, or comments on the space program as a whole. Unlike Tom Jones’ Sky Walking, which combined Jones’ memoirs with a narrative history of NASA during the eighties and nineties to provide background information, there’s no broad review of the organization. We get instead workplace stories which happen to be set in space shuttles, the space station, and Russia’s “Star City”. Since this is NASA the work stories can be extraordinary; for instance, early on he was asked by Rick Husband to be a family escort during Husband’s mission aboard Columbia; ordinarily, this involves driving the family around during launches and landings, getting them punch, and offering reassuring answers to concerned questions. If the name Husband rings a bell, it should – he commanded the Columbia when it broke apart in orbit, and Anderson became not just a valet, but the immediate focus of the family’s sorrow and despair, helping them to shoulder their emotional burden – a shared one, for he and Husband had trained together. More cheerful is his account of the extensive time spent with Russian astronauts in Star City. Anderson’s class was required to have a rudimentary grasp on the Russian language, and part of his basic training took place in Russia where he learned their systems as well. Still more fascinating is his recollection of time spent in NASA’s underwater habitat, which offered its own difficulty and delight — the photo of Anderson staring out into the water at a close-range school of fish makes obvious the utter joy it brought to him.
The Ordinary Spaceman is an odd book. It lives up to its title in that Anderson seems like a guy off the street, a Nebraska farmer in space. He didn’t enter NASA as a hotshot pilot, but as a civilian intern. He met his wife in the cafeteria line and uses Wikipedia as his go-to reference. (The first time he did this, to supplement his memory while remniscing over Saturday morning cartoons, I thought it was funny. The next five times, when he was referring to actual NASA history, not so much.) It abounds in stories about the mundane details of working for NASA, the inns and outs, without drifting into complaining. (I do mean ins and outs: he goes into great detail on how to use a space-toilet, records at length his body’s reaction to returning to Earth by expelling fluid from every possible orifice, chronicles his attempt to self-administer an enema, and proudly counts himself as the only man to poop in four space vessels — two shuttles, Soyuz, and the ISS.) Towards the end the organization gets odd, very back and forth, frequently chatty — but ultimately, Anderson is a nice guy who sustains the reader’s sympathy and affection. His career in NASA, by his own account, was undermined by his own weaknesses, like a short temper. But he’s not proud of failing at times, and does his best to make amends. In that, he really is an ordinary guy, doing his best, and picking up the pieces when he goes off the rails. The Ordinary Spaceman is more useful as an account of a man’s living the dream at NASA than about NASA or shuttle spaceflight in general, but a boyhood fantasy turned reality certainly has its appeal.
- Sky Walking, Tom Jones. Not quite as fun, but more substantive in regards to appreciating the history of the shuttle program and the creation of the ISS.
- Two Sides of the Moon, Alexei Leonov and Dave Scott. Joint Apollo-Soyuz history of the space race, with a lot of content on the Russian space program and Star City.