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Clayton Anderson: The NASA engineer who got to be an astronaut–after 15 years and 14 rejections

“That’s one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind” grew to be a dream for one ordinary man from Ashland, Nebraska, who in chasing a destiny developed a perfect example of a never-give-up attitude.

After first seeing Apollo 8 on its the trip around the Moon and back, followed by Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface for the first time in human history, Clayton Anderson wished nothing else but to fly out of the Earth’s atmosphere and do what these great men did. No matter how many steps it would take to get him there.

Anderson was just a kid in 1968 when he witnessed the second manned spaceflight mission in the United States Apollo space program and the first ever to make a trip around and see the dark side of the Moon. The one we never see normally, due to tidal locking.

“When I was nine years old, in 1968, my mother and father awakened my brother and sister and I and placed us in front of a black-and-white TV in Ashland, Nebraska, around midnight on Christmas Eve,” he recalled in an interview for Popular Mechanics in August 2015.

“We watched the Apollo 8 astronauts go behind the Moon for the very first time in human history. That was my earliest recollection. My thought was, ‘This is cool. I want to do that,’ ” explained Anderson when asked if there was something in particular that sparked an interest in becoming an astronaut, enough to help him persevere through the years of countless rejections.

Although he graduated in physics at Hastings College in his birth state of Nebraska and got his master’s in aerospace engineering at the Iowa State University, Anderson was only a cadet at NASA when he first applied to become an astronaut in 1983.

NASA astronaut Clayton C. Anderson, mission specialist

NASA astronaut Clayton C. Anderson, mission specialist

As he states in his book The Ordinary Spaceman-From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut released in June 2015, from 1958 when President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act to establish NASA and with it America’s space exploration program up until 2013, there were 50,758 applications from hungry dreamers, yearning to became astronauts. However, only 338 were selected; almost half of them held a master’s degree while the others had PhD’s.

“My work experience was limited at that point… I had no idea whether anything I had accomplished thus far in my career could or would stand up to anyone else’s… I didn’t kid myself; I knew it would be a long, long time before I even got a sniff from the committee.”

And those first fears were realized soon enough. He was rejected, but not discouraged. Not at all. He continued to work at NASA as an engineer and help construct stuff other men would fly in, or on occasion to plan, design, and supervise their flying trajectories. He did that for 15 years–never passing up the chance to try his luck and apply in each and every one. In the meantime, he did what was needed to be done: to get better, of course. He knew even then that a Ph.D., though helpful, was not obligatory. What was were skills, physique, and expertise.

Anderson in the Destiny module of the International Space Station
Anderson in the Destiny module of the International Space Station

He started by doing what he could do to move up the ranks inside the place where he worked. The year he was first rejected was the year he made the first crucial step forward in his career when he got a desk inside the Johnson Space Center in Huston, Texas, and was assigned to the Mission Planning and Analysis Division.

By 1988, he was a Flight Design Manager and designed the path for the Galileo planetary mission towards Jupiter, and right after for the Magellan mission. The success of both missions led to his promotion to manager of the whole Emergency Operations Center.

All the while, his spare time was filled with activities that were on the same trajectory. He chalked up countless hours of scuba diving, mountain climbing, and flight lessons to show he had the necessary qualities of aptitude and endurance in order to be “the right stuff” for the job he dreamed of. He was supposed to be able to endure everything under any circumstances.

What he endured was 13 rejections, despite all his efforts. Just as he was about to quit, he recalls in his book, Anderson received a call from Duane Ross, the man in charge of astronaut recruitment and training. Ross asked if he was willing to enroll “as a member of the fifth group of astronaut candidates for the class of 1996,” that covers everything from what it’s like to travel at speeds of 850 miles per hour, to how astronauts “take out the trash” in space, and what they do when the toilet breaks.

Anderson watches as a water bubble floats in front of him on the shuttle Discovery during the STS-131 mission.
Anderson watches as a water bubble floats in front of him on the shuttle Discovery during the STS-131 mission.

He was more than willing after so many years of dedicated hard work and now closer than ever before to board a space shuttle. Sadly enough, while he was considered very qualified for the next missions, he was apparently not right enough. Only 10 percent were selected of those who were called in for an interview.

Two years and one more rejection later, Anderson was called by Ross once again. This time he made the cut, he got in at last. It was 1998, and he was assigned as a mission specialist and sent for training.

Step by step Clayton found his way to space. It took him 15 years but he made it. He was an astronaut at last. And over the course of the next 15, he lived the dream he had dreamed as a little boy back in Nebraska. He grew to be the first astronaut from his state, the record holder at NASA in terms of failed job applications for the same position, and a true legend who never quits. After 14 rejections, the 15th got him the chance to experience 40 hours of spacewalks and five months at the International Space Station, 250 miles above the Earth.

Related story from us: Hidden Figures: The stories of three extraordinary women from NASA

“I remember my very first spacewalk, as I hung on the front of the Space Station flying backward, I was able to see the moon rise. That was one of the most breathtaking things that I had ever seen in outer space.” –  Clayton Anderson for Popular Mechanics.

Martin Chalakoski

Martin Chalakoski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News