Confessions of a Sta­tion As­tro­naut

Clay­ton C. An­der­son talks about his new book, The Or­di­nary Space­man.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - IN­TER­VIEWED BY MICHAEL CASSUTT

An ex-space­man talks about sins against mis­sion con­trol

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Cassutt: How did you make your­self a bet­ter and ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful as­tro­naut can­di­date?

I am not sure why they fi­nally se­lected me af­ter 15 years…. First, I was bet­ter known at the John­son Space Cen­ter. Hav­ing worked there so long be­fore my se­lec­tion, many folks knew of me and my work ethic. I had also added to my ré­sumé a bit [with] some of the more com­mon as­tro­naut ap­pli­ca­tion “en­hance­ments,” like SCUBA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and get­ting a pri­vate pi­lot’s li­cense. It was still hard for me to stand out among the fan­tas­ti­cally gifted can­di­dates that also sub­mit­ted their ap­pli­ca­tions. I was just an en­gi­neer with a mas­ter’s de­gree, mak- ing me feel a bit like Howard Wolowitz, the Ph.d.-lack­ing foil in the sitcom “The Big Bang The­ory.” But un­like Wolowitz, and the other 2,600 ap­pli­cants in 1998, I had one thing go­ing for me that none of them had. I was a col­lege and high school bas­ket­ball of­fi­cial. While that may not sound too as­tro­naut-like, it was unique among the ap­pli­cants. It showed lead­er­ship and con­fi­dence and phys­i­cal ded­i­ca­tion.

There have been rel­a­tively few shut­tle-era mem­oirs, and not many about the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. Why is that?

It is in­ter­est­ing to me that very few as­tro­nauts have cho­sen to write about their time in space, es­pe­cially those of us who have lived and worked on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. I wanted to be one of the first, and to do it while it is still some­what rel­e­vant, and not merely a his­tor­i­cal ac­count of my mis­sion many years later.

My book doesn’t pro­vide life lessons or sage ad­vice. It does not pro­vide a blue­print for sav­ing the world or for en­abling peo­ple to be­come more suc­cess­ful by ap­ply­ing my ex­pe­ri­ences to their ev­ery­day lives.

Did writ­ing it teach you some­thing new about your­self?

Writ­ing this book was ther­a­peu­tic. I am a be­liever in truth and trans­parency. I want to tell it like it is. How­ever, in writ­ing my first book, I’ve learned that of­ten­times I’m a bit too open and up front. As I wrote of my dif­fi­cult mo­ments in

RE­TIRED AS­TRO­NAUT CLAY AN­DER­SON was se­lected for the corps in 1998, af­ter ap­ply­ing 15 times. He calls his book a “sim­ple ac­cu­mu­la­tion of what I con­sider in­ter­est­ing, en­light­en­ing, fun, and per­haps sad.” These in­clude can­did rev­e­la­tions of as­tro­naut tra­di­tions, so­cial life, and ex­pe­ri­ences on the space sta­tion, in­clud­ing the frus­tra­tions and com­plaints that An­der­son be­lieves got him dropped from flight sta­tus. Read about his run-in with mis­sion con­trol in an ex­cerpt at

airspacemag.com/an­der­son.

space and on the ground af­ter my first flight to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, I came to re­al­ize that I had cul­pa­bil­ity, just as my as­tro­naut man­age­ment and Mis­sion Con­trol Cen­ter teams did. But in the end, it seems to be all about the de­liv­ery. In the book, I ex­plain how I ac­cepted that re­spon­si­bil­ity—al­beit a bit late—and how it hurt my ca­reer. I be­lieve it was my will­ing­ness to speak up that caused me to fall in the eyes of my as­tro­naut bosses. Af­ter hav­ing es­tab­lished a pretty solid rep­u­ta­tion be­fore fly­ing on the sta­tion, I be­came more con­fi­dent in my sta­tus, as­sum­ing that was all I needed to be heard and re­spected. How­ever, it would turn out, it was not so much what I was say­ing, but how I was say­ing it, and—even more im­por­tantly—how it was be­ing per­ceived by those hear­ing it. That was a tough les­son to learn.

As an as­tro­naut, I had the most won­der­ful job in the uni­verse, but it wasn’t easy by any means. In the end, I sim­ply wanted to share that thrill with the au­di­ence, while still point­ing out sit­u­a­tions il­lus­trat­ing when and how it could be dif­fi­cult and frus­trat­ing. That was a re­ally fine line to cross.

Based on your ex­pe­ri­ence on the Iss—and what you know of oth­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ences— how use­ful is it to be­yond-earth-or­bit mis­sions?

A typ­i­cal day on ISS has the crew fol­low­ing a de­tailed daily sched­ule. It’s bro­ken down into spe­cific seg­ments for the tasks, color-coded to help the crew de­ter­mine which ac­tiv­i­ties are time-crit­i­cal and which must be com­pleted in or­der. A sec­ondary list of ex­tras, to be tack­led at the crew’s dis­cre­tion or not at all, is also pro­vided. This cur­rently ac­cepted and rea­son­ably well un­der­stood con­cept will sim­ply not work for trips BEO or to the Red Planet. The ap­prox­i­mately 20-minute round-trip com­mu­ni­ca­tion lag pushes us to a new way of do­ing busi­ness. Crews will need much more au­ton­omy than they have to­day.

In or­der to test new ways of work­ing BEO, the Mis­sion Con­trol Cen­ter team, along with the flight di­rec­tors that lead them and those who train all of them, must bet­ter pre­pare crews to ac­cept and thrive in this new world of in­creased, and au­ton­o­mous, flex­i­bil­ity. For ex­am­ple, the list [of tasks] will most likely be up­loaded to the crew weekly, with words of wis­dom from the ground:

“BEO Crew: This week we need you to ac­com­plish the pro­vided 10 tasks. We have no re­stric­tions on how you tackle these tasks ex­cept that tasks no. 1 and 2 MUST be com­pleted prior to work­ing on any of the oth­ers. In ad­di­tion, tasks 6 and 8 will re­quire you to fast 12 hours prior, so please plan for that.”

But what if there is still an is­sue? With a 20-minute comm lag, text mes­sag­ing is much more prac­ti­cal than a call to Earth. Much like Andy Weir’s hero Mark Wat­ney in his pop­u­lar book,

, mes­sages can be sent, and The Mar­tian then a des­ig­nated time must pass un­til an an­swer is re­ceived. Tex­ting is also a tech­nique that would lend it­self to test­ing on the space sta­tion. The time dif­fer­ence can be changed in­cre­men­tally, and all can see what hap­pens. Once the in­ter­val is Mars-like, I surely hope the crew has a good book, some pota­toes to tend to, or some of those old sit­coms that Wat­ney suf­fered through!

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