An Interview with Astronaut Clayton Anderson

By Terry Dunn

Terry chats with retired astronaut Clayton Anderson about his book, The Ordinary Spaceman, and his life as an astronaut.

One of the biggest perks of my time working at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) in Houston was the opportunity to mingle with a large portion of the astronaut corps. There was always a steady stream of folks in blue jumpsuits who came to the NBL to train for spacewalks. Other space flyers were poolside in supporting roles. It didn't take much time working with the astronauts to figure out that they do not fit a rigid mold. Sure, all of them that I met were extremely smart people and habitual overachievers. Beyond that, they were subject to the same variables that you would find in any other group of humans.

Clayton Anderson was an astronaut for 15 years. He spent 167 days in space and logged nearly 40 hours of spacewalking time.

They Are Only People

Some astronauts were laser-focused on the tasks ahead, while others seemed to take a more relaxed approach. Many were silly jokesters, but a few were more solemn. The vast majority of astronauts were gracious and easy to work with.

I think I speak for most of my NBL colleagues when I say that Clayton Anderson was one of our favorite astronauts to have around. He was always quick to shatter any illusions of rank with a self-effacing joke. The next minute, you might find yourself the target of a publicly-delivered, yet good-natured verbal jab from Clay that made you feel like part of his inner circle. Even in such a lighthearted atmosphere, the work never suffered. That was critical, since underwater training at the NBL is full of deadly hazards. Working with Clay convinced me that you don't have to be stuffy to be a perfectionist.

I was completely flummoxed when a few of my colleagues from the Mission Control Center (MCC) told me that Clay's reputation among flight controllers wasn't nearly as rosy as his NBL image. Some of NASA's "console jocks" felt that he was a troublemaker and difficult to work with. I later learned that there were widely differing opinions of Clay even among his comrades in the astronaut corps. I was never able to reconcile the negative things I heard about Clay with my positive personal experiences working with him. Sometimes I wasn't even sure that we were talking about the same person!

His Side of the Story

Clay retired from NASA in 2013 after logging more than 167 days in space, including nearly 40 hours of spacewalking. He published his first book, The Ordinary Spaceman, in 2015. The book is not a comprehensive auto-biography of Clay's life. Rather, it focuses primarily on his experiences while becoming and being an astronaut. Clay's story thoroughly addresses the conflicting duality of his image within NASA. Clay accepts much of the blame for the incidents that got him sideways with flight controllers and fellow astronauts. At the same time, the book also reveals that other key players might also benefit from a dose of self-introspection.

I recently spoke with Clay to ask him about the book and his career as an astronaut.

It seems like you got along very well with the Russians that you worked with, particularly Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov (Clay's Expedition 15 crewmates during his long-duration stay on the International Space Station (ISS)). Were there any cultural or personal conflicts that you had to deal with?

Clayton Anderson: Actually, there weren't. Early in our astronaut training, they talked about "expeditionary behavior". What this means is that you have to work well with others…even if they are from a totally different culture. If you're going to succeed as an astronaut, then you have to have good expeditionary behavior.

Fyodor and Oleg had been there [ISS] for about a month before I arrived. When Fyodor first coached me on how to live in space and where supplies were, things like that, he always told me to replace your empties. When you use the last tissue, replace the bag. Or when you use the last whatever. But Fyodor and Oleg never did that…they never replaced anything [laughing]. So I'd get in the crapper and be looking for the Huggies, but they'd be empty. I could have made a stink about that, but I chose not to. I put up with some things that others might not have put up with. And it turned out that none of that stuff mattered at all. It was small potatoes and we had a great time together.

Clay's time in space was not always fun and games. He was sometimes at odds with flight controllers and astronauts on the ground.

Your book is very frank about some of the personal tensions you experienced with two chief astronauts. Do you think that they will be surprised to read your side of things?

CA: Some [administrative] folks in the astronaut office have read my book, but I doubt that many astronauts have. I'm guessing that the rumor mill is ample to fuel speculation about what I wrote. Only two people get dogged on…and I didn't necessarily dog on them, I just told the story…I told what happened. I admitted my culpability in the situation but I also tried to point out that I didn't think what happened to me was fair.

My intention was never to make more work for them [management, MCC, et al], but they could have shown me and my family a little more support than they did. I didn't put on a diaper and drive to Florida to spray pepper spray in someone's face, right? They had to deal with that too. In my opinion, what I did was miniscule compared to something like that. And I got less support than Lisa Nowak got.

I tried to be as honest as possible in the book. I'm sure that those people probably have different understandings of how it went down. But their understanding is always going to be in their favor, "I did what I had to do because Clay had a bad attitude." I'll never win that argument.

As I read your book, I had the impression that you took a hatchet and exposed yourself to the core. Was there any aspect of your life that you consciously decided was off-limits?

CA: I exposed my life more than most [astronaut autobiographies]. Could I have exposed myself more? Probably. I suppose it was a conscious decision. There were certain things that have no bearing on my life today. The things that I tried to include were those milestones…those things during my 15 years when I did become an astronaut: what it took to become one, and then fly, and then leave.

You applied 15 times before being selected as an astronaut. Were you starting to think about giving up that dream?

CA: Before the first time I was interviewed in year 13 [his 13th astronaut application], my wife and I had travelled to Seattle to look for job opportunities and think about moving. I was tired of getting rejected and thinking I probably didn't have a chance. When we came back from Seattle, that's when I got the phone call for an interview [to be an astronaut]. After that, it made my desire even greater to continue. I thought, "If I got one interview, then maybe I can get another one."

At some point you began learning Russian on your own to make yourself a more attractive astronaut candidate. What would you have done to improve your chances if a 16th application had been necessary?

CA: After that first interview, people talk to you. They come to you and they say, "I heard that your interview went well but they didn't know enough about your technical background and they were worried about your back surgery." So, when I had my second interview, I highlighted my technical background and made sure they knew that my back had been doing great. The people in the weeds [of astronaut selection] talk, and that talk always gets back. Fortunately for me, it was stuff that allowed me to present an even better case if I got interviewed again.

I had been offered the job of NASA's deputy director of operations in Russia. That was a job that would have enhanced my astronaut application. My wife and I talked about heading over there together and living in Russia for a few years to do that job. But that was when I got hired to be the emergency operations center director at JSC [Johnson Space Center].

Clay lists his spacewalk training among the most useful of his preflight tasks. Some things had to be learned again in space.

What do you think was your most useful training?

CA: Your basic training just to live on the space station in zero-G is good and it's not so good all at the same time. They came up with a concept called "A Day in the Life of ISS"-training where you actually did some of the tasks that you would do most of the time that you were in space…like stowing and unpacking bags, packing bags…all of that trivial stuff that's not very "spacey". That training was quite useful, but we didn't have enough of it. We always trained for emergencies instead. Of course, if you're lucky, you don't have any of that to worry about [actual emergencies in space].

From a training standpoint, most of the scientific payloads I was trained on…I forgot all of that stuff. I had to relearn it when I was in space. I'm guessing that EVA training [Extra-Vehicular Activity, aka spacewalking], how to use the food machine, and how to use the bathroom were the three most important parts.

Pooping is a recurring theme in the book, including vivid, graphic details and even a little coaching for readers who might someday find themselves in zero-G. Were you attempting to address this topic so definitively that no one would ever ask the question again?

CA: I didn't think of it that way. The bathroom thing is a very popular question that I get asked. From my perspective, since I had done it for 5 months, I just thought it would be fun to explain to people the art of taking a dump in space. Some people that reviewed the book said that I was crude, and vulgar, and childish, and all of those things. But try to find another astronaut book that talks about it in that level of detail.

The things that I talked about…that's all real stuff. When you do that for 150 days, it becomes an integral part of your life. Most people don't know what happens inside the walls of the space station toilet. So I tried to give them a little insight. I had fun writing it.

More to Come

Clay indicated that he has other books coming down the pike. They're not necessarily the types of books you would expect from a retired astronaut. I won't offer any spoilers here. However, you can stay on top of things by following Clay on Twitter (@Astro_Clay), Facebook (@AstroClay), or his website (www.astroclay.com).

My sincere thanks to Clay for only showing me his "good side" when we worked together and for taking the time to answer my questions during this interview.

All images are courtesy of NASA

Terry is a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.