Clayton Anderson, Nebraska astronaut (Courtesy of NASA)
Clayton Anderson is energized when he chats it up with visitors at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum — and they suddenly realize they’re talking to the real-life space hero showcased in an exhibit.
“When it dawns on them, and their faces change, it’s incredible,” said Anderson, who is resettling in his hometown of Ashland after decades away honing a career as Nebraska’s only astronaut.
In a fitting turn of events, Anderson, 63, has returned from the Houston area to become president and chief executive of the SAC Aerospace Museum, which is just off of Interstate 80 between Omaha and Lincoln.
‘Stars have aligned’
The Hastings College and Iowa State University alum, who spent 167 days in space and was part of six spacewalks, now is charged with preserving and spreading the story of SAC, the Cold War and aerospace artifacts. He retired in 2013 from a NASA career that spanned three decades.
“The stars have aligned,” said Gary Gates, chair of the museum’s board of directors. “Clay’s unique professional experiences align perfectly with the mission of the museum.”
In his new role, Anderson said he looks forward to meeting as many Nebraskans as possible to not only expand the scope and reach of the museum, but also to show young people that dreams can come true.
“It’s time to give back. That’s the most important thing,” he told the Nebraska Examiner, in explaining his latest move. “I’m just a man who was raised in a small town community, with amazing people, teachers, coaches, neighbors and church friends who helped shape me into the man I am today.
“I want to excite young people and help them understand they’re just like me and can do great things if they persevere, work hard and believe in what they’re trying to do.”
‘Pooping in space’
He said the museum’s mantra is to educate and inspire. He intends to keep that focus with all age groups and to help make the learning process even more entertaining.
Among the features at the museum is an exhibit reflecting Anderson’s own space journeys and explorations. It’s grown over the years, with additions including his Russian space and survival suits.
Anderson said he knew he was “in the right place” as he strolled through the museum on recent days talking to guests. Questions abounded, especially when they learned his identity, he said, including the common query about “pooping in space.”
He loves the interaction, he said, and hopes to build even more interactive programming into the museum.
“I can’t wait to be the face of the museum going forward,” Anderson said, adding that the opportunity to head the museum located about four miles from where he grew up is a culmination of a career dedicated to space exploration and education. He has big plans as the museum approaches its 25th anniversary in 2023.
‘Tug to come home’
He recalled the museum opening in 1998, the same year he was selected to become Nebraska’s first astronaut. “So the tug to come home and help carry this museum forward the next 25 years was pretty strong.”
He said he wants to collaborate with all communities in the region to tell the “powerful story of Nebraska and America’s role in military command and its relationship with our nation’s aerospace exploration.”
This summer, the museum will host youth camps on aerospace, drones, gaming, weird science, robotics and more. Programming is available for families, flight enthusiasts and historians. Helicopter Day is Saturday May 21.
Known also as “Astro Clay,” Anderson has authored five books — three of them written for children about space. Though he and his wife have lived in the Houston area many years, he said he commuted to teach aerospace engineering to first-year students at Iowa State University. That covers the space environment, history and future of space, spacecraft environmental control systems, ethics and teamwork.
He obtained his undergraduate physics degree from Hastings College and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Iowa State. He has earned numerous honors, including the NASA Spaceflight Medal, NASA Exceptional Service Medal, Aksarben Court of Honor and Outstanding Alumnus awards from Iowa State and Hastings College.
Anderson, who served previously on the museum’s board of directors, succeeds former CEO Jeffrey Cannon, who had led the museum since 2018. Cannon stepped down because of health reasons.
Anderson said he is in an apartment as he and his wife look for a house. His son and daughter-in-law live in Omaha, as she attends medical school. His daughter is in college in Texas but will be working in an internship in Omaha this summer.
“It’s been great. People have been great. I’ve heard from so many friends, and I’m overwhelmed with kind wishes and words.”
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