In Spokane, Wash., where he grew up, Lt. Col. Michael Anderson was such a success story that the Rev. Happy Watkins would use a signed picture of the astronaut as a motivational tool when the clergyman spoke to young people.
"It shows him in an astronaut suit standing next to the Columbia space ship," said Watkins, Anderson's former Sunday school teacher. "The kids can look at him and see he is black."
"It's inspiring to show," Watkins said. "If he can aspire to be the best, you can be the best."
Payload commander Michael Anderson was teaching pilots how to fly refueling aircraft at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York when NASA chose him as one of only a handful of black astronauts.
"He was ideally suited for it," said Rich Cantwell, chief of military justice at the base. "He knew what his job was and he was one of those guys who could do his job so well and make it look so easy."
The son of an Air Force man, Anderson was born in Plattsburgh, grew up on military bases but considered Spokane his hometown. He developed his love of flying early.
"I was always fascinated by science-fiction shows, shows like 'Star Trek' and 'Lost in Space,'" Anderson, 43, said in a recent interview. "And going out of your house and looking up and seeing jets fly by, that seemed like another very exciting thing to do."
"So it all kind of came together at a very young age, and I thought being an astronaut would be the perfect job."
In 1998, Anderson traveled to Russia's Mir space station aboard the shuttle Endeavour. On the Columbia mission, the lieutenant colonel was in charge of dozens of science experiments. To him, the risks of flying were worth it.
"I take the risk because I think what we're doing is really important. If you look at this research flight and if you really take an opportunity to look at each experiment ... the potential yield that we have is really tremendous," he said.
Copyright © 2003 The Associated Press
Lost in Space: 50 years of NASA