Having spent over 150 days on his first tour of the International Space Station, it’s safe to say that Clayton C. Anderson knows a thing or two about space travel. Now retired and affectionately known as “Astro Clay” by his many admirers on social media and the Internet, Anderson has fielded thousands of questions over the years about spaceflight, living in space, and what it’s like to be an astronaut. Written with honesty and razor-sharp wit, It’s a Question of Space gathers Anderson’s often humorous answers to these questions and more in a book that will beguile young adults and space buffs alike. Covering topics as intriguing as walking in space, what astronauts are supposed to do when they see UFOs, and what role astronauts play in espionage, Anderson’s book is written in an accessible question-and-answer format that covers nearly all aspects of life in space imaginable. From living in zero gravity to going to the bathroom up there, It’s a Question of Space leaves no stone unturned in this witty firsthand account of life as an astronaut.
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About the Author
Clayton C. Anderson retired in 2013 after a thirty-year career with NASA and two missions to the International Space Station, during which he performed six spacewalks. He is the author of The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut (Nebraska, 2015) and A is for Astronaut: Blasting through the Alphabet. He is also a motivational speaker and a senior faculty fellow and distinguished lecturer of aerospace engineering at Iowa State University. He lives in League City, Texas, with his wife and two children.
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The Life of an Astronaut
Question: What's it like to be an astronaut?
Answer: Being an astronaut is indeed the greatest job in the universe. It is challenging and rewarding, full of stress and excitement, and a whole lot of fun. I felt extremely proud in representing my country and undertaking such a noble endeavor that put me in situations and environments experienced by few in human history.
I spent a total of 167 days living and working in outer space. I had the opportunity to perform six different space walks while helping to build and maintain the International Space Station (ISS). I also had the privilege of seeing our beautiful home planet every single day from a vista some 225 nautical miles above it. And I got to perform a multitude of science experiments that may one day lead to advances benefiting people around the world.
For more details on my personal life as an astronaut, you might want to check out my first book, The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut. Here's a short section to give you a flavor of what being a brand-new astronaut is like:
Being a novice astronaut, the phone call that ultimately blew me away was the one I received from the PE (Personal Equipment) Shop at nearby Ellington Field. I was told I would be receiving a "holey joe" (NASA lingo for interoffice mail envelope) containing a couple of forms for me to fill out. Once that task was completed, I would then be able to head out to Ellington Field for a meeting, the content of which was not clear.
For me to be journeying to Ellington Field was a major deal. This was a special, almost revered place where United States astronauts challenged the skies in high performance T-38 jets. So recently bestowed with the title of astronaut, I still considered myself an outsider. I was in awe as I headed for Hangar 276.
Question: Do astronauts have stable family lives?
Answer: Remember, this answer is my opinion and my opinion only. My priorities have always been, first, God; second, family; and, third, astronaut/career.
I have a very stable family life, full of love. My wife and I celebrated twenty-five years of marriage in 2017, and we are very, very proud of the two young people we have raised. But those twenty-five (and counting) years have not been free from stresses and struggles during my career as an astronaut. Some of those stories are told in The Ordinary Spaceman. But I have never ever been unfaithful to my wife, never.
The divorce rate is high in the astronaut world. When I became an astronaut in 1998, it was said to be about 35 percent, which I think is way too high. While some may argue that is a normal or reasonable rate for the United States, I counter with the statement that "astronauts are supposed to be the 'cream of the crop,' high achievers that do whatever they set their minds to." So, if that's the case, shouldn't we be able to keep our relationships strong and stable — even through tough times?
Question: Has any astronaut ever desired to stay in space instead of returning to Earth after mission accomplishment? What I mean by "stay in space" is "stay working in the space station and not be left in space to die."
Answer: This is a very interesting question for me and something I had to think about.
When the Discovery mission space transportation system (STS)-120 launched in late October 2007, I finally knew I was going home. I had spent nearly five months living and working aboard the ISS, but I worked extremely hard not to think about returning to Earth. I needed to keep my focus on the mission and not start daydreaming of reuniting with my family for fear something would happen to upset the apple cart and cause me to make a mistake.
My wife and I had discussed this many times. "What-ifs" abound with regard to the negative possibilities a space launch and mission could entail (think of the Challenger and Columbia). In the latter portion of my five-month stay, we had both agreed we could stick it out a little longer. By that we meant postponing our longed-for reunion for another month or two would be survivable although not necessarily desirable. Anything much longer than that would have presented a hardship for both of us.
You may ask, Why? Why would an astronaut — living the dream, flying in outer space, pushing the boundaries of science, becoming more famous with every single day and every single tweet — want to come back? Why not stay up longer and do more good for our planet and the people of our world? My answer is simple: I had a wife and children I loved. My place was back on Earth, and Twitter didn't exist then. Don't forget that my spouse was running our entire household all by herself and for much longer than the relatively short time I was in space. She had become the focus of our kids and our family's chief operations officer way earlier when I started to travel back and forth to Russia during my three and a half years of training. She assumed every role: mom, dad, nurse, lawn caretaker, chauffeur, repair person, counselor, financier. You name it, she did it. She had sacrificed much, including her own career advancement, so I could live my dream. It was time for me to be home for her and hold up my end of our marriage vows. After all, she had a career too. To me, that's what love is all about.
Please understand, my time in space was wonderful. It was thrilling, it was incredibly demanding and gratifying, and it was a blast! I would love to go back, but on my terms, not NASA's. My life's priorities are not negotiable, and my family is right there at the top.
Question: What is the typical age of American astronauts?
Answer: NASA has all of those statistics available. Check the Astronaut Fact Book, which is available on the websitewww.nasa.gov.
I was selected at the age of thirty-nine. Others, such as Tammy Jernigan, have been selected as young as twenty-five years old. The oldest selected was John Phillips at around age forty-six; his astronaut classmates called him Fossil. If asked to guess off the top of my head, I would say an average age would be around thirty-five years old.
Question: Why were there so many astronaut applications in 2016? There were more than eighteen thousand applicants applying for the 2017 NASA astronaut class, shattering the record of eight thousand in 1978. What factors attributed to this giant boom?
Answer: I think the answer to why there were so many astronaut applications in 2016 is pretty simple: social media.
When I applied and was finally selected in 1998, some twenty-six-hundred-plus folks applied with me. Only twenty-five Americans and seven internationals were selected. That's a success rate of around 1 percent. I have no idea how many applications were submitted in competition with mine when I applied for the first time, way back in 1983, but I'm guessing it was more than a few. Now in the year 2016 — with our hyper-connected world — over eighteen thousand applications were submitted. Further, with an expectation that NASAwill choose only eight to fourteen new astronauts (they ended up choosing eight), well, that's a rate of less than 0.1 percent! Tough odds, for sure. My unsolicited advice? Prepare for a few more application submittals before your ultimate selection. Let's see, how many times did I apply before I was selected? Hmmm, fifteen!
Realize, of course, that in those eighteen thousand–plus applications will be some easy ones to reject. Eighty-year-old airplane pilots who don't have the résumé of former astronaut and U.S. senator John Glenn, twelve-year-old girls applying as part of a junior high school project, or individuals boasting of their ability to telepathically communicate with aliens living on the planet Ork will hit the circular file faster than orbital velocity.
But as I, the Ordinary Spaceman, have always said, What do you have to lose but a little bit of your time and effort? The rewards can be tremendous, and don't ever tell yourself you won't make it. Let the selection committee tell you.
There is one other thing to consider. It has long been my observation and belief that once members of the astronaut selection committee become involved — and when it gets to the point where mostly current astronauts do the selecting — they opt to pick candidates who are just like them. I am speculating here as I was never asked to participate on that selection committee in my fifteen years as an astronaut.
Question: What is the most difficult task for an astronaut to perform in outer space?
Answer: It's hard to say which task is the most difficult. As with most endeavors, the first time you try something is often the hardest. That was my experience with using the toilet. After the first time (successful, I might add!), my confidence and understanding of what to do and how to do it increased tremendously. The same could be said for going on space walks and for doing maintenance inside theISS using various tools. Anything I did for the first time necessitated that I read and follow the procedures very carefully to minimize any possibilities for mistakes.
Photography was a task that really took some time to learn. Since the Earth is spinning and the station is traveling around the Earth, our relative velocity was about five miles per second. So with the "ancient" photo equipment we had back in 2007, following or tracking a target with the camera lens, while hoping to capture an in-focus shot, was a bit of an art. I got pretty good at it with time.
Question: Are NASA astronauts only paid between $80,000 and $140,000 per year? Considering that they risk their lives, isn't that salary scanty? Do they get any additional benefits?
Answer: Astronaut pay? Heck, yes, it's "scanty." When compared toTV and movie stars, sports figures around the world, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and the like, astronauts don't get paid squat, especially when one considers we do risk our lives. Yet most of us really don't care. We're doing what we've dreamed of doing, many of us since we were young children.
When an astronaut is selected, the salary will range between general schedule (GS) levels of GS-11 to GS-14, based upon the federal government's pay scale and each individual's academic achievements and experience. As of this writing, a GS-11 starts at $66,026 per year and a GS-14 can earn up to $144,566 per year. Military astronaut candidates are assigned to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) and remain on active duty status for pay, benefits, leave, and other similar military matters.
My wife and I discuss this topic frequently. Our conversation always returns to the solid work of our U.S. military veterans. If we consider their working conditions, it puts those of astronauts in a different perspective. I cannot speak for my colleagues, but in my personal experience, astronauts and military servicemen and women have similar experiences in some significant ways. We toil in the framework of government service; we are subjected to family separations, the result of long — and sometimes frequent — deployments. We also must perform according to rules and regulations many would find overly restrictive. Yet we soldier on, many for our love of country and the impact we can have on people's lives, including preserving freedom in America and around the world.
But there is a big difference. As astronauts, we don't put ourselves in harm's way with the regularity of those defending our country abroad. I don't recall any incidents where someone was shooting at me or my crewmates or where I was placed in the unenviable position of trying to find and avoid an improvised explosive device. I never had to patrol a foreign land — wearing heavy and hot equipment that made my space suit seem like a pair of overalls — while protecting those who long to live in freedom and not under some aggressively oppressive regime.
Sure, I risked my life when I dived in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) during space walk training. Yes, I risked my life when I flew sorties in the T-38 Talon jets for spaceflight readiness training. And, of course, I risked my life by jumping in an explosive-laden rocket to fly into the vacuum of outer space. But I did it infrequently, and all of those things were fun! And when it was all over, people (well, maybe not everyone) patted me on the back and told me how brave I was, how wonderfully I performed during the missions, and how cool they thought astronauts are. I never once worried about spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair or fighting through years of rehabilitation without one of my arms or legs. I didn't spend sleepless nights filled with horrible dreams and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Certainly, it would have been wonderful to be compensated in the likes of a LeBron James or a Warren Buffett, but it was not necessary for me. I was living the dream. Perhaps it would be better for our brave military men and women to receive more than the meager salaries they get now. And when they do return home? Thank them for their service and give them that pat on the back. They're the ones who really earned it.
Question: Have you gone to space?
Answer: Yes, I have. Twice actually. The first time was 152 days' worth, as a crew member of the ISS from June 8, 2007, through November 7, 2007, to be exact. The second trip was for 15 days as a member of the STS-131 crew. We visited and resupplied the ISS. That trip took place from April 5 through April 20, 2010. During these two trips, I had the privileged opportunity to perform six space walks, three on each mission. Quite cool if you ask me. I believe I'm a pretty lucky guy, and your question is pretty broad, don't you think? In any event, there's my answer.
Keep lookin' up. If you had looked up in 2007 or 2010, you just may have seen me waving at you from the shuttles Atlantis or Discovery or from the ISS.
Question: How was your experience of working with Sunita Williams?
Answer: Working with Astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams was a real treat. I have nothing but positive memories of the time we shared together, prepping for our respective turns in space.
Of the first members of our 1998 class of astronauts — the Penguins — assigned to fly to the ISS, Suni was designated to fly there immediately before I was, and I was supposed to be her backup. Originally, she was to fly with Expedition 12, and I was to go with Expedition 13. If all went well, I was to follow her into space and take her place. All didn't go well, with many situations changing NASA's launch plans.
We were labeled by NASA and the Astronaut Office as ShRECs. Not just a clever moniker, the acronym stood for Shuttle Rotating Expedition Crew members and symbolized, to an extent, our roles and responsibilities for the mission content. As ShRECs — Suni was ShREC 1, so I was ShREC 2 (good movie titles!) — we would launch on, and return to Earth on, designated space shuttles. It also meant we were tied directly to different ISS chunks of hardware — for example, the solar array wings, or truss segments; modules; and so forth. In this capacity we were trained to work with these specific pieces of hardware and were likely to get the chance to perform some space walks because of our familiarity with them, a very desirable coup for mission specialist astronauts.
Launch delays and crew reassignments led us to finally be booked for our trips to the ISS as members of STS-116 and STS-117, respectively. I would launch and replace Suni on board the ISS, as her 116 launch via space shuttle Discovery left her to become a part of Expeditions 14/15; and I, arriving on Atlantis, was part of Expeditions 15/16.
Suni and I called each other Brother and Sister. Our training schedules were such that I took all the training she did and vice versa. We would both fly for differing lengths of time as members of Expedition 15 with Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikin and Oleg Kotov. And whenever Suni got an itch to do something unique, she pushed me hard to do it with her. After all, wasn't I her backup? These escapades included, but were not limited to, an overnight train trip to St. Petersburg, Russia; winter survival training in the Absaroka Mountains of Wyoming; and many other adventures within the confines of Moscow, Russia.
Suni, a former naval officer and helicopter pilot, is a wonderful astronaut. She now holds numerous women's spaceflight records and boasts an extremely impressive résumé. She has a wonderful sense of humor, a passion for NASA outreach, and a slightly happy-go-lucky personality that is reflected in her lifestyle. One of the wonderful privileges afforded me via our training relationship and growing friendship was the opportunity to meet her mother, her father, and her sister. Her mother, my ballroom dance partner at an astronaut function years ago, presented me with a St. Christopher's medal and chain just before my launch. A piece of jewelry that I cherish and still possess, it left my neck only when I was doing my daily ablutions. The necklace, which succumbed to the forces described by Sir Isaac Newton — namely, the severe lack of gravity — on the ISSduring one of my towel-bath sessions disappeared at one point and caused me considerable distress. How relieved I was to find it, totally by accident, hovering quietly near the floor behind a cargo transfer bag as I searched for some experiment equipment some two days later!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "It's a Question of Space"
Copyright © 2018 Clayton C. Anderson.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Introduction List of Abbreviations 1. The Life of an Astronaut 2. The Basics of Outer Space 3. ET Phone Home 4. The International Space Station 5. Space Physiology and Psychology 6. Space Celebrity and Miscellany 7. Philosophy and Politics 8. Normal Spaceflight Operations 9. Space Suits and Space Walks 10. So You Wanna Be an Astronaut?