Michael P. Anderson
 Michael P. Anderson 
Age: 43
Occupation: Physicist
Experience: More than 211 space-flight hours
Personal: Married

Air Force brat who got altitude

Michael P. Anderson, son of an Air Force man, grew up on Air Force bases and saw NASA as a way to meld two interests he had since childhood - science and aviation.

"I found that science was something that really caught my attention. ... And you know, being an Air Force brat and living on Air Force bases, I was always around airplanes," Anderson said in a recent interview on NASA's website.

Anderson was fascinated by Star Trek as a boy. At age 9, he watched the first moon landing. "I can't ever remember thinking that I couldn't do it," Anderson, one of NASA's few African-American astronauts, said in a University of Washington alumni publication.

Anderson, 43, was born on Christmas Day, 1959. He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in physics and astronomy in 1981, then was commissioned in the Air Force as a second lieutenant. He logged more than 3,000 hours of flight in refueling tankers, and flew the Strategic Air Command's airborne command post code-named "Looking Glass" said Stephen Kline, a friend of Anderson's and the director of public relations at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., where Anderson got a master's degree in physics in 1990.

Anderson earned the degree while he was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb. "It must have been hard for him and other students to fly and then come do quality work in the graduate program," said Sam Cipolla, a professor of physics at Creighton and the director of the graduate program. "Mike often had to go on missions, but he kept up with the work and was very dedicated, soft-spoken and likable."

When Anderson first flew in space in 1998 and docked the Endeavour with Russia's Mir space station, he brought on board a Creighton pennant and the eyepiece of a telescope from the university. "Dealing with someone with a celebrity stature, and astronauts are celebrities, can be a burden, but working with Mike was always an absolute delight," Kline said.

Garrett Booth, executive pastor of Grace Community Church in Houston, near the NASA Johnson Space Center, said Anderson left Sandy, his wife, and two children, Kacee, 8, and Sydney, 10.

"Mike was a quiet guy, but a dedicated family man," said Booth, whose congregation has many NASA employees. "He and his family attended Grace regularly and were just a good part of the church here."

Early in January, the church had a sendoff for Anderson and Rick D. Husband. There were prayers, and the two men got up on the platform to talk about their mission, Booth said.

Anderson "was just so excited about being part of this mission, particularly with the Israeli astronaut. They just both felt it was really an important, significant time," Booth said. "You couldn't find two better guys."

Anderson was one of three crew members on Columbia to have flown in space before. It was the first trip for the other four.

"We're a very rookie crew. A very young crew," Anderson said on NASA's website. "So knowing that, we've gone to great lengths to make sure that our inexperience isn't something that's going to hamper us. We've worked very closely, worked hard together over the last two years to make this mission a success."

Anderson said he did not enjoy launches.

"When you launch a rocket, you're not really flying that rocket, you're just sort of hanging on," he said. "You're trying to harness that energy in a way that will propel you into space. And we're very successful in doing that. But there are a million things that can go wrong."

The shuttle, he added, "is a very complex vehicle. And even though we've gone to great pains to make it as safe as we can, there's always the potential for something going wrong. We train and try to prepare for the things that may go wrong to do the best we can. But, there's always that unknown. And I guess it's that unknown that I don't like."

Still, space travel was something Anderson loved. His ambition, he once told a Creighton professor, was to go to Mars.

"Entries are a little bit better than launch. You know, it's a little quieter. It's not quite as violent. And you can enjoy it a little bit," Anderson said on the website. But still, for me on this flight entry, I'm just going to sit down in my seat and, hopefully, reflect on the 16 days in orbit that we've had."

By Matthew Brelis and Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff