NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson is a role model of persistence. He was rejected fourteen times by NASA, but he never gave up his childhood dream to become an astronaut.
Currently the retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson is educating businesses on persistence and fighting for the better change, and he is also an internationally published author of his book “THE ORDINARY SPACEMAN – From boyhood dreams to astronaut”.
On a very special day, the 23rd February which is the birthday of Clayton, Dodo Newman had the exclusive chance to catch up with him and to discover more about his experiences and his future aspirations.
The interview, thanks to the generous assistance of uniphi space agency, was conducted by Dodo Newman.
Dodo: Do you remember the first time of your life when you wanted to go up to space?
Clayton: Absolutely. I was 9 years old on Christmas eve in 1968, when my mother, father, my brother and sister and I were together. It was near midnight on Christmas eve in Ashland, Nebraska when we were put on a little mat in front of a black and white television. We watched the Apollo 8 astronauts go behind the Moon for the very first time.
The story is kind of vivid in my mind because as you watched the television, which was black and white, all you saw was the control team. In those days we did not have the fancy cameras we have today that allow us to see what astronauts are doing in space. So the flight director, the leader of the team was barking out his commands, asking for “go”, “no go” from all the people in the control centre, and as I remember listening to that and eventually as it went behind the Moon you could not hear from them anymore. All you got was static. And that lasted for a long time, I do not remember how long but it seemed like forever.
And then when they came back around and began to communicate again that is when I remember thinking: “wow that is the coolest thing ever and I wanna to do that”.
However if you ask my mother she would tell you that I was six years old, three years earlier and she and I would discuss that I was becoming a United States astronaut. So much so that in my home town of Ashland which is a very small place in Nebraska, every summer in July we would block off the main street and put a street carnival there. They have a big celebration, they call it the “Stir-Up” and one of the events was a kiddie parade. Little children like me at six years old dressed in costumes, we paraded to see who had the best costumes and who won a ribbon. In those years you had no stores like Walmart in America and Costco or any big department stores where people could go and buy those costumes. We did not have that back then.
So my mother went into her pantry and grabbed a roll of an aluminium foil, then she got a hat box from the closet and she cut the hat box and put it on my head with a slot for my eyes and a pipe cleaner on the top, with a Styrofoam ball to communicate with aliens. And she wrapped it all in aluminium foil. I marched in that parade as a Mercury astronaut. That was it.
Dodo: Probably your mother saw something in you ahead.
Clayton: Yes, but I lost. I did not win a ribbon.
Dodo: But you won in another way.
Clayton: Yes, yes. So much so that actually when I lived on the space station in July of 2007, whatever the anniversary was from the time when I was six years old to the day I was at the international space station, my hometown had the celebration again like they always do. They sent to the mission control centre in Houston Texas a proclamation that the control centre team read to me on the international space station, that declared me the winner of the kiddie parade in 2007 because I finally had a real astronaut suit.
Dodo: It is very cute. And the truth to be told you absolutely deserved it because you had a very inspiring path to NASA. Most people give up on their dreams at the first obstacle, however you were rejected fifteen times by NASA before being accepted. Your persistence is now a role model for aspiring astronauts and many other people. What made you persist to not giving up?
Clayton: What I tell people is that applying to be an astronaut is very easy. Getting selected is very hard. When I first submitted my application to NASA it was the earliest possible moment when I could do it, which was actually slightly against the rules, because it was a little bit early for me, based on my work experience at the time. But I decided that once I did all that work, putting together my very first application was the most difficult thing because I never done it before. We did not have the Internet, we had to do it on the typewriter. If you made a mistake you had to correct it with a white marker, it was really a pain. All that work to get my background, my references and all the things in order; that was the hardest part. Then after that every year was simply a matter of updating the application with things that I had done to improve myself. And some years I did not have anything to add.
Waiting to be selected was the most difficult, but like I say it was a pretty simple process to re-up my application and to wait to hear from them.
In the meanwhile as I kept getting rejected, it became an exercise of “Well heck… they do not seem to want me”. So it was always a question of what can I do to make myself more presentable to them. And in that time I made some decisions that turned out to be correct and I moved around a little bit within the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. I stayed in the same job for a long time because I liked it and I was good at it, and then I made a leap in 1996 to become the emergency operations centre manager at the Johnson Space Centre.
This meant I worried about hurricanes and bomb threats, fires and medical emergencies and hazardous chemical spills. It was a big step out from what I have done before but it turned out to be a heck of a lot of fun, a really good challenge and a really good learning experience. This exposed me to so many people at Johnson that I never would have met before, and that actually helped me in the astronaut selection process. Some of those people (new acquaintances) were on the selection board. So they knew me and more importantly they knew my work ethic. They knew my capabilities and I think that, plus my dashing good looks, finally did it for me.
Dodo: Your charisma.
Clayton: That’s right, charisma.
Dodo: Yeah, but I also believe it was your inner drive. You could easily have said well life does not want me to be an astronaut and to go to this direction, why don’t I just leave it? But you had this inner drive and this is what makes your story fascinating for the ordinary people from an ORDINARY SPACEMAN.
Clayton: Sure. You know, did I sit behind my desk every day and say “wow I have a drive”? No. I just go and do what I guess I needed to do. I am the person I was raised to be by my family, my friends, my teachers, my church, my coaches. I have seen a lot of people who work really hard and they are very aggressive about becoming an astronaut. I do not know if I ever considered myself one of them.
But again it was a relatively easy thing to update my application and to update it by doing things that I believed in and things that I enjoyed. So as I started to add those into my resume, I guess that helped.
Dodo: I guess your life’s purpose changed while you were in space. How did you realise this? Was it like a gradual process or something instant?
Clayton: In all honesty when I became an astronaut my wife will tell you that I complained a lot. It was very stressful, you always had to be “on”, we always had to be focused. We took exams, we had to study, and everything we said and did was measured by someone to make sure that we were doing the right thing. And looking back to those days I think sometimes stress got to me. My wife used to say: Man this is the job you wanted your entire life and now you are complaining? And that was a good wake up call.
You know you had to refocus and to say all right, everything requires effort and every job has aspects of it that are not fun to do or that are not pleasant. I had to realise that it is not just “Hey, here is Clay the astronaut”. And so that helped me to focus and as astronauts say “Keep your head down and keep colouring”. That is a really good mantra for a “baby” astronaut and as I write in my book the “THE ORDINARY SPACEMAN”, that was what I tried to do. I tried to do my job, I tried to keep my head down, not making any mistakes and to overcome the stressful part –just looking at it as the cool opportunity that it was. So I guess all that time from when I became an astronaut to when I eventually flew into space was a transitional period for me.
Dodo: And did you feel afterwards that you changed after some years as you approached life and your activities?
Clayton: I think so. I am very much aware of my need to be a role model for both children and adults. Especially for children. I take the astronaut role very seriously. When I see some of my colleagues who have done things that are questionable in various forms it really bothers me. I also write about some of those things in my book. Personally I believe I am one of those guys who when I put on the flight suit I understand fully what it represents. While I am not perfect, I always try very hard to represent that flight suit and my country in the best way possible by how I speak, how I act, how I treat my family members, all those kind of things. It is very important to me.
So transitionally yes, that has changed the way that I believe and the way that I behave and in addition I do look at the planet differently. I am not an alarmist, I do not think we should live on Mars tomorrow, but I believe we should take care of our planet. Everyone should take care of our planet. Humans have contributed to pollution and sure, we should stop doing that, but my belief is that God gave us a brain and that brain allowed us to figure out that using fossil fuels were a great way to enable us to generate electricity and energy so that people could live a better life. Now that brain also enabled us to figure out that those same fossil fuels are kind of dirty and having put all this in place we should clean that up. Using our brains there are people working to figure out ways to clean all that up. There are lots of alternative energy sources. Are humans polluting? Yes. Does it contribute to climate change? Probably. But the question I wrestle with is to what level. I think the climate is constantly changing. It has been constantly changing even before humans got here and it will be constantly changing when we leave. So I try not to carry an “alarmist attitude” with all that stuff. We will figure it out, we will continue to study, we will continue to learn, we will continue to grow. The problem is that all of this stuff has to be matched with economic processes as well.
I do not want to give up my lifestyle, but I happily adopt new ideas when they become financially feasible to what I do today. So we are using that brain, around the world, to figure out better ways to do things. As we learn and adapt we need to work together to do it. That is my philosophy and that is another thing I changed a bit. I try to do my part, but I do not go overboard. I have not purchased an electric car; I am not going to install solar panels on my house yet. That is just me.
Dodo: After spending 167 days in space and returning to Earth you wrote a compelling book “THE ORDINARY SPACEMAN: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut”. What was your main motivation to write your book? How did the vision come to your mind, was it up in the space or down on Earth?
Clayton: Actually it started when I lived underwater in the Aquarius habitat near Key Largo, Florida. We were actually given an assignment by NASA: they said they would like each crew member to write journals, to chronicle our experience. That means different things to different people. To me it meant that I would write really short, (less than a page), fun, educational stories that people can read quickly and get a good understanding of what we are doing, depending on the topic of course! My aim was to encourage them to like it through humor and by making them think what we were doing was cool, to create something that might influence them to want to read more. I did not want to tell boring stories like “… we wake up, we had breakfast, and then we get ready to do whatever….” What I found was, as I wrote those stories, I really liked it. It was fun. It was therapeutic and I began to write more. Back then there was no social media, but some of my stories were posted on the NASA website where they were seen by only a small few.
As I continued along my career, I did not yet have a flight assignment, but cool things still happened along the way. So I wrote more short stories when something really unique occurred in my training flow. And when I finally got into space I continued to write. When I was training in Russia I continued to write, and when I got home from space I wrote some more. Then, as I looked at all these short stories I thought, “Hey this might make an interesting book”. So I put them all together, developed an outline and a chronological order, and I saw where I had holes or gaps in the story. For example I had not written anything about launching into space and I had not written anything about performing a spacewalk. So I kind of filled in those holes and the more I wrote the more fun I had. I have an author friend who writes murder mysteries here in the United States and is a New York Times best-selling author. She started to read my work and really liked it. So at that point it became an effort to find a publisher. I got rejected many, many times.
After writing about a hundred (email) letters someone finally reached out to me and said “…we heard that you are writing a book. Would you like us to publish it?” And they were the only company that offered to publish my book. So I got lucky again. I get lucky a lot in my life it appears.
Dodo: Yeah, it seems you always find that opportunity and it comes together with your openness. I think that is when the luck comes together. So your persistence keeps affecting your life.
Do any aspects of the space return in your dreams now that you do not go out there anymore? Do you have any kind of dreams, vision?
Clayton: Sometimes I dream about space, being in space or going back to space. Typically it is nothing surreal or nothing visionary, but I dream about some of the things that happened while living there. I dream about the good times but also the difficult times as well. Yet the further I am away from that in time, the less detail I am able to remember, recollect. Which is unfortunate but that is part of growing old.
But yes, I still dream about space and I would love to go back.
Dodo: Do you still have strong desires to go back to space?
Clayton: I do not know how strong they are but I would love to go back if it was on my terms. By that I mean I want to go back such that I do not have to spend a lot of time away from my family. One of the astronauts said spaceflight is like crack (heroin). Once you taste it you want more. Personally I do not know about heroin, but I know for sure that once you have been to space it will attract you forever and you just want more of it.
But I do not want to go back for six months. I do not want to go back for a year. I want to go back for a month or a month and a half to just enjoy zero gravity, to see the Earth and weather, and meteors and more importantly to relive some dreams I had before and then to come home to my family. I do not want to train for two and a half years to do that. And that is kind of a difficulty these days.
For a guy like me who has lived in space for 167 days I do not need a lot of training. All I need is refresher courses. Then I can hop on the rocket and go back into space.
I would love to jump into space right now. I’d love to do some flips and float around, eat some space food, drink some space coffee, look out the window and snap some pictures, and then come back home.
Dodo: Who knows maybe it will be possible soon.
Clayton: Maybe. Currently, I need to save my money.
Dodo: What is your most beautiful image of the Earth you safeguard in your heart?
Clayton: There are a couple of images. The first is not of the Earth but above the Earth when I was out there on my first spacewalk. I was hanging in front of the station which had been rotated in the middle of the night to fly backwards. We were flying backwards because I was going to throw away a huge, and no longer needed, ammonia tank. In order to help me throw it in the proper direction the control center had turned the station around. So when I was out in the front of the station, hanging upside down in the Canadian robotic arm, I could throw it in the right place. Well as I was getting ready to do all that I was gathering tools on a place they call the external stowage platform (ESP). I glanced up and as the Moon rose over the Earth it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I stopped working and I just watched. It happened very quickly in space because the Earth is rotating, but it was just spectacular. That image sticks in my head a lot.
Looking at Earth the thing that I remember the most was hoping to fly over my hometown of Ashland, Nebraska. As I prepared myself for that, I had been in space a couple weeks already and I thought I needed to take pictures of my hometown. So I was in the lab at the lab window and I had all the cameras laid out. The lenses were ready and the batteries were charged, the digital cards were inserted into the cameras and I was ready to go. So I just looked at my computer to see where we would be flying over the Earth. I had approximately twenty minutes because we were coming over from Seattle, Washington and we were going to fly right over my hometown of Ashland, Nebraska. It was then I realized that as I looked out the window just how difficult it is to find things on the Earth when you do not have a map where everything is labelled for you!
So I was studying where we were in our orbit, where we would be flying over, trying to find the headwaters of the Missouri river. My plan was that if I could find the Missouri river then I could track it around and find Omaha, Nebraska. Omaha would be a big gray blob and Lincoln, a slightly smaller gray blob. Right between Omaha and Lincoln is my hometown. So at least I could aim my camera in that direction and try to get some photos.
When we got closer and I was primed to take those pictures, we passed over, and I was able to locate Omaha, and according to my plan I finally saw my hometown of Ashland. However I did not take any pictures. I wept. I was crying because it was so emotional for me to be flying over the place where I was born and raised, 250 miles above the Earth, living the dream I had dreamt since I was six years old. It was a pretty powerful moment for me.
Dodo: What were the main issues of your life that changed by having been in space? What were the elements that made you see life on Earth differently?
Clayton: When I came back to Earth I focused mainly on my family. Being away from my family showed me just how much they were involved in me achieving my dream. They sacrificed an enormous amount for me to be able to do what I did. Family is very, very important to me and that focus is still maintained today.
We talked about the idea that our planet is a beautiful place, and we all should work together with the brains we have been given to figure out things, to keep it safe, clean and sustainable. Another thing that was amazing to me was that as you flew over places that most of us would consider deadly –for example the Sahara desert– you know putting someone in the middle of the Sahara desert is a very difficult place to survive. But as you look at the Sahara desert from space it is absolutely breathtaking. And it is so different in so many aspects. When I flew over it several times in a day, I just loved to look at it, and I took pictures of it because of the varying terrains, the different colors, the shapes of the sand dunes and how they changed as the wind blew. It was just like looking at a piece of art.
Australia was the same way, and honestly, the entire World is that same way. Yet for me those two places –and especially the desert aspects of those two places– were simply amazing to me; that they could be so deadly, yet so beautiful.
Dodo: Maybe for humans deadly but from nature wise it is absolutely living.
Clayton: And of course when you look at the Earth and you fly over the icebergs near South America; you see the deserts; the amazingly varied environments of South America or Russia; all of these things give you a greater appreciation for what the planet is like. And we are all together flying on a spaceship we call Earth. It might sound like cliché phrases some astronauts like to use, but actually all are very true. You do not see lines or delineations between Europe and the Russian Federation or between Spain and Portugal; it is all one beautiful blob. And that is the way most of us want humans to behave –like we are all together in one amorphous group. Yet to do so is very difficult. We all have different cultures and different backgrounds; different beliefs, different goals and dreams. It is really hard to integrate all of that together and to put people in one direction where we all moving forward.
Maybe that is what space travel is destined to do for us; to help bring us together eventually. But this will be hard because today in our world there so many different ideologies. Some countries do not even know about space. They do not care about space, because they are worried about their next meal or where they get water from. Yet those are exactly the things where space programs can help. If we can provide technology development to third world countries allowing them to have a better life, maybe we can begin to use that as our common focus.
Dodo: Do you think it is important to spread this message, like drops in the Ocean, to those who have not been in space? You know to open up awareness.
Clayton: I think it is very important and I think that is happening right now as we speak. In addition to astronauts in America, there are international astronauts who are doing exactly what I am doing, speaking and telling people about the beauty of our planet. They are telling people about the integrated human species and that we should think more in those terms rather than “…I am a German, or a Russian or Japanese or American.”
If you think about it, there have been about 540 (humans) astronauts and cosmonauts that have flown in space. They hail from all around the world. It is a very small number if you consider the entire population of Earth. And our ability to share the story by speaking is hindered by that size difference. But thanks to the Internet and the ability to talk with someone like you and YOUniverse across the Ocean, we are taking steps in the right direction. That is a positive aspect of that capability. And where does that capability come from? It came from the beginnings of our space program.
Dodo: Do you think space traveling is important?
Clayton: Well I have a very solid –but different– philosophy than many. I do not think that the destination is all-important. I do not think going to Mars is the thing we should talk about. I do not think going to the Moon or to an asteroid is what we should talk about either… or going to Pluto or Saturn’s moon Titan. What I believe is important is no matter where you choose to go there will be technology development along the way. That is what’s important to human kind.
The ability to turn urine into water we can drink (currently done on the space station), now that is a technology development that is independent of where space fliers might go. Imagine putting this capability into Third World countries where they can turn their urine into clear and drinkable water. It’s the technology development –regardless of your destination—that occurs along the way. This is what’s important and it’s why we should continue to explore space.
Interestingly, it is not commonly known, but NASA has a section on its Internet page where it talks about the technological developments which have come about as a result of space programs. When people take the time to look at that, they will find that there are thousands of things that benefit humans on Earth… everywhere on Earth, not just in the United States or Russia, but everywhere.
Dodo: NASA Johnson created a few years ago a Gangnam Style Parody where you participated as well with an amazing dance skill. Why did you feel like taking part in it? In a world where the next generation is growing up on entertainment and reality shows how do you consider the appreciation of the astronauts in today’s world?
Clayton: When I first started at NASA I was a summer intern. I got selected and hired to work for a summer at the Johnson Space Centre. When I finally became an astronaut, that program was still in existence and several of the “modern era” NASA interns were trying to provide new ways for NASA to reach out to people. With social media and the Internet playing key roles, one of those ideas was to post things on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Well these young people came up with an idea to create a video, a parody video. So they looked around and found a popular song and apparently it was this Psy the rapper guy in South Korea and his “Gangnam Style” video.
The interns wrote, scripted, directed and produced a parody video. They came to me because they were looking for an astronaut who is just crazy enough to do a dance on a video that was (eventually) going to go out to the World.
Dodo: And you are crazy? That is you character?
Clayton: I love to do stuff like that. If I cannot have fun doing something, if I cannot be an astronaut having fun while doing it, and to share that excitement, enthusiasm then why should I do it? It was really cool, because they are very talented young people. When they came to me the first thing they asked was “Will you dance?” and I said “Heck yeah I will dance”. And you see the result in that video. Interestingly that video has been viewed more times than any video in the history of NASA, including the Moon landing.
So it turned out great, they did a very great job and I am very proud to be in it. I had a great time filming it. I love how it turned out. And if it gets both kids and adults to pay attention to the space program, then it was successful.
Dodo: You mentioned before that children are very important for you and for your focus. Of course you are a father of two children.
Clayton: Yes, I have two children and they are hugely important to me. Just like the title of my book “THE ORDINARY SPACEMAN” suggests, I am an ordinary guy. Everybody is like me. Everybody starts out the same way as I did. Everyone was a kid… maybe in a small town, maybe in a medium or a large town, but we are all ordinary. We all have dreams and in order to live those dreams you have to work very hard. You have to have the support and help from family and teachers along your way. And you have to have a little luck along the way as well. You are all like me and we all start out the same. So everybody has the opportunity to be just like the “Ordinary Spaceman” and do some very extraordinary things.
Dodo: Do you think it is important for our children to go up eventually to space, so that they also experience?
Clayton: Is it totally required? No. Is it important? Certainly. Imagine that you could have fifteen minutes floating around the Earth. Imagine what that might do to your willingness to work with other countries or to work with other cultures.
I do not know if it would solve everything, as some people just cannot be persuaded because of their ideologies and beliefs. They will not change no matter what you do, no matter what you show them. But for most people, if we could just bring them up to space for five, ten or fifteen minutes and then bring them home, imagine the perspective change that we may be able to provide for them. Obviously it won’t work for all people, but maybe a significant percentage? And I think the aspect of changing people’s thinking to “…WOW the Earth is a Spaceship for all humans” vice having them thinking solely of their individual countries, would help. I certainly do not think it can hurt.
Dodo: Do you teach this also to children?
Clayton: I have a lot of speaking engagements around the country. I do that as often as possible –it is my job now. I love to talk to kids because kids are so open to things, but I love to talk to adults too. I think I am able to tell stories which can help to change their outlook, encouraging them to see things in a different way. Then they might understand why space travel is so important to the future of humans. And it is fun.
I also teach academics part time at Iowa State University. Coupled with my book, the teaching and speaking allow me to get the word out and inspire people to continue to support the efforts to go into outer space.
Dodo: What does the word “space” mean to you?
Clayton: I guess when you have been there and when you have seen it and you have looked through the window and have seen the billions of stars, it is incredible. You cannot imagine. And as you look you think how vast it is, therefore I think space means vast to me.
It is incomprehensible for a guy like me with a small brain size to understand exactly how big it (space) is. But it is pretty cool to think about it, and then to actually go there and experience it and think “Oh my gosh”. Imagine standing in the middle of Hungary and spinning slowly around 360 degrees. You can understand that there are borders to Hungary whether they be mountains or rivers or imaginary boundaries. I can do the exact same thing in the United States and will see we are bordered on two sides by an ocean, and to the north by Canada and the south by Mexico. But when you go to the space and you look into just one single direction it is infinite, you have no idea where the end is and this is a pretty daunting thought.
Dodo: Do you think there is any connection between the outward space and the inner space we have as humans?
Clayton: Yes, I think it is so. I have a strong faith in God so that is my inner space and I believe that God is responsible for our outer space as well. And I believe that the two are entwined. I understand about guys like Albert Einstein and I understand physics principles about energy. You look in space and you see that sort of thing. But how did all this come together? How did all this come to be? How did we end up in a small, blue and green, white and brown ball that we call Earth. It just boggles my mind to think about that. I can relate to the two together. Many people choose not to relate to the two together, but I do. I think it is important for me and for my sanity that my faith is that way.
Dodo: What does energy mean to you?
Clayton: Energy is the life blood of everything –the universe, the humans, the stars, and the planets. Without energy what are you, right? You take a nap to restore that energy; you eat food to restore that energy, so energy is kind of that life blood of everything in existence. And this is a good question because no one has asked me this one before. But I think that it is the life blood of everything. No one can control all the energies and there are many forms of energy and I think there are forms that we do not even understand yet. So that gives us more to work on.
Dodo: Did you every have a longer period of fear, self doubt while you were in space?
Clayton: Fear, I do not think so, but I felt some anxiety. My first launch day was a little nervous. I was never afraid, but you know it was a unique experience. What is it going to feel like? How will I behave? When we actually got into space that very first week we installed a solar array and when the astronauts hooked up all the cables together and the solar panels opened up, it began to generate electricity. The current surge was so much that it burned through a box in the Russian segment. And when it burned through that box all six of the Russian command and control computers went dead. Was I afraid? No. Was I anxious? Yes. I felt that I might have to go home already. I worried that I did all those years of training and after all that work I am going to be here for just one week and I have to go back home? Fortunately my Russian crew mates went in and cut the wires, pulled the damaged box out and rewired around the box and brought back all six of the computers. Pretty amazing stuff, pretty cool engineering. And it was just a testament to their intelligence and their capabilities. Fortunately we brought up a new box a few months later and they fixed it. Everything was good and back to normal. But I did not have to go home. So fear was never a real concern, nothing happened to me that would put fear in my head, but I did have some nervous moments, some anxiousness and anxiety and things like that.
Dodo: What was your most memorable activity during your space trip?
Clayton: Oh yeah, my first spacewalk. I was the lead spacewalker and I went out with Fyodor Yurchikhin the Russian cosmonaut. Here was this American on his very first spacewalk with a Russian guy and we spoke “runglish” together. I was the lead dude, but I had never done this before and I was in charge. As I opened the hatch, I pushed it back and locked it in place. Then I looked into the three foot diameter hole. So here I am looking out and the Sun is behind the Earth so it is totally black. It was the blackest black I have ever seen. Now the pressure in space is zero and the pressure in the airlock was just slightly above zero. My spacesuit has an air conditioner called the sublimator on its back. Ice particles, created on the sublimator, were flying from the back of the left side of my spacesuit and disappearing into the blackness of space. That was so cool! All I could think of as I floated above that hole and looked out into the darkness of outer space was that I was born to be here, right now, doing this.
Dodo: You were aware of that moment so clearly, so it sticks with you so strong. I am truly interested what was your very first thought, impression when the spaceship grounded/returned on Earth?
Clayton: The first time I came back in 2007 I was lying on my back in the shuttle. For station long duration crew members we take the shuttle seat, and lay it down and we are strapped on the top. Because I had been in space for so long they wanted to make sure that the force of gravity acts through my chest and not my head because that could possibly make me sick. After landing, as I lay there comfortably on my seat with the shuttle on the runway, they opened the hatch which was to my left. I felt terrific. I was so excited. I was home, I was going to see my family, I was going to kiss my wife, I was going eat a steak. Everything I thought was terrific until the moment they got me moving around. Then I did not feel so terrific anymore.
Dodo: What is it to feel walking again after many months of gravity? How did your body react?
Clayton: I was very heavy. I weighed 200 pounds again and moving was very slow, and very difficult. I was shuffling my feet. Your body tells you that you are still in zero gravity and it wants to turn you as you move. To me it was as if I wanted to turn to the right and walk into the wall. But you figure out very quickly to put a hand up against the wall while you walk to keep yourself steady, and of course there were many people to help me walk. But the worse part of that day was my insides, my vestibular system, my gastric- intestinal system. There, I had much difficulty. And I think it is a fun chapter in my book, which is appropriately called “The Hard Thump of Reality,” and it tells in gory detail about the day when I returned to Earth.
Dodo: Does your sense of time in space change?
Clayton: It did not really change for me. You are on a clock, on Greenwich time, your schedule is very routine. You wake up at the same time, have breakfast, lunch, dinner on a regular schedule and you work all day while talking to the ground team. Once the day is finished, you get ready to sleep and then it starts all over again. So I do not think I noticed. I never felt really bored there. Maybe there were only two days when I thought I was bored but that is a pretty small percentage out of the 152 days. I think that for the most part days went as expected, some days I worked really hard, some days not quite as hard, some days I had to work later into the evening to get a task accomplished, but then I was able to take a little breather in the next days since I was ahead of a schedule. So for me the schedule in space was very well done. And after I arrived in space my next focus was my first spacewalk. After that my next focus was a visit from another crew (STS-118). And after that I was focusing on my next spacewalks. And after that we had a big robotic arm test to do. So everything went well and I had nice milestones to look forward to do once the previous one was complete. And that really helped me as I did not have a long period of no spacewalks, no robotics, or no visitors from another planet.
Dodo: Did you miss sunlight in space?
Clayton: To a certain degree. Today it is better because the cupola module allows you to see sunrises and sunsets. When I was in space, most of the windows looked toward the ground/Earth. The Russian service module had a couple of windows that looked to the side and you could catch the Sun and oblique views of earth occasionally. What I liked to do was to go to one of their windows that looked to the side, and just put my face against the window because when the Sun came out you could feel the warmth of the Sun through that window.
Dodo: What is your favourite colour?
Dodo: Well it is the colour of passion, energy, activity, everything related to strength. It describes a lot about you.
We talk about the private sectors that are emerging. What do you think how does this effect the traditional space travels, discoveries, research in general for the humanity?
Clayton: I think commercial space flight is a good thing. It is very similar to the Wright brothers when they first flew on a beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (USA) in 1903. As they looked at their airplane and they flew I guess about 122 feet, they had no idea that in later years, people could hop on a plane in Germany and fly to Texas in less than a day. So I think we are on to something which can be really good for people. The only thing that concerns me is whether there is a real market for it.
For example, there is a strong market for someone like you to fly from Germany to the United States, or for me to fly from Texas to Abu Dhabi, because people are doing business deals, people are building things. What remains to be established is the market for humans going from Earth to somewhere… whether it be the Moon, Mars, a space station, another planet or an asteroid. So all that said, the people who are doing the commercial space travel are getting ready to offer opportunities to people like you to go to space and see the Earth, and that is a good thing. My biggest fear is what happens if someone dies? How will people feel about that? With today’s social media it will be known instantaneously around the globe. Will the leaders of commercial spaceflight companies continue?
In the days of the Soviet Union when they first did their first spacewalk, Alexey Leonov went out of his capsule and his space suit inflated so much that he had difficulties trying to get back in. The Russians were prepared to cut him loose and then tell the World that the space flight only had one cosmonaut on board. They could control what the media reported since no-one knew what was going on unless the Soviets told them. Today that is impossible. Today with social media if something bad happens, everyone will know about it.
I believe it could cause people like you or many others –people interested in flying into space and paying money for the privilege to do so– to say “I do not want to risk that anymore”. And the other aspect of this is whether we can really make a business case for going to the Moon and mining its regolith, or for grabbing an asteroid. Well, I do not know. I am not smart enough to do that. But you know someone discovered oil hundreds of years ago in Texas and look what happened. My fear is that if someone does die in one of these programs the next reaction might be to stop trying.
Dodo: Is there a serious risk? Because nobody really talks about it.
Clayton: Absolutely, and of course nobody talks about it. But to be honest, if you just go out on the autobahn in your car, there is risk there too. If you get into an airplane there is a risk, but the difference is that most of us now are comfortable with these risks and our ability to control the situation. So we accept that risk. However in space flight we are not there yet. Astronauts accept risk because we have always dreamed about going, and are willing to go. We are willing to take that risk and we know that if we die we are doing it for the better good.
Dodo: You retired in 2013 from NASA. What moves you nowadays, what are your current ambitions?
Clayton: I believe in many ways I have something bigger to accomplish in my life, something I do not yet know what it is. In America sometimes I think about political aspirations, but I do not like what I see right now. If I would enter that realm I have the opinion that I could make it better. Yet I wonder whether I would just be hugely frustrated and angry to not able to do anything about it. But I am hoping to write a couple more books but I do not have big capability behind me. I noticed that another astronaut colleague has done a children’s book, a pictures-of-Earth book, and a memoir of sorts, in addition to cutting a DVD of songs he recorded in space. Well here in America, in Houston it’s just me, so I am working the best I can. I am a very dedicated guy and as I said before, I believe even if I do not yet know what it is, there is something bigger out there for me where I can contribute to the World. My goal is to always remain human.
Dodo: If you would have the chance to form a message for the future generation, what would it be?
Clayton: I think it would have to be “… work hard, believe, be responsible for what you do and love more.