The Private Grief of a Public Tragedy: Astronaut Michael P. Anderson's Family Copes with Their Loss

By Gilbert, Marsha | Ebony, May 2003 | Go to article overview

The Private Grief of a Public Tragedy: Astronaut Michael P. Anderson's Family Copes with Their Loss


Gilbert, Marsha, Ebony


As a boy growing up in Spokane, Wash., Mike Anderson was always building model planes and rockets. He hung them with invisible wire at different levels from his ceiling, and he announced at the age of 4 that he wanted to be an astronaut.

Thirty-nine years later, Michael Philip Anderson, 43, was one of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated over Texas 16 minutes and 40 miles before its scheduled landing on February 1, 2003.

Among the millions of Americans who watched horrified as the tragedy unfolded was his wife, Sandy Anderson, who was at the Kennedy Space Center with their daughters, Sydney, 11, and Kaycee, 9, awaiting his landing. When radio contacts and tracking between the shuttle and ground control was lost, Sandy Anderson hoped it was a temporary glitch. But she was devastated when she and other relatives realized that Columbia was gone and that there were no survivors.

Sandy Anderson, a former registered nurse who met her husband at the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Spokane when she was a teen, knew that her husband was engaged in dangerous professions as a pilot and then as an astronaut. She supported his dream and told Ebony, in one of her first interviews since the tragedy, that she wouldn't have done anything to prompt him to consider another occupation. "I wouldn't change anything even knowing what I know," she says. "I wouldn't talk him out of it because that was his calling. He would probably choose to go the same route. I never thought that in a million years I'd have to raise my daughters by myself. You never think it's really going to happen to you, but at the same time, he loved what he was doing. I have to honor that." She also has to honor the reality of loss and the duty of continuing his legacy and preparing another generation, especially since daughters have told her that to miss their daddy and wish the could turn the clock back.

Columbia was Lt. Col. Anderson's second launch into space. His first mission took nine days in 1998 when the crew transferred more than 9,000 pounds of scientific equipment, hardware and water from the space shuttle Endeavour to the Russia space station Mir. "He said he wanted to do it again," says his widow from their home in Clear Lake, Texas. "Being the first African-American astronaut on the Mir was something special to him. He wanted to be the first man to go to Mars."

Anderson's father and mother, Bobby and Barbara Anderson of Spokane, who also shared his dreams and passions, shared via television his last moments. They got up early that Saturday morning to watch the landing on TV. At the first hint of problems, Barbara Anderson called her daughter, the astronaut's sister, Brenda Daniely, in Avondale, Ariz. Daniely connected them on a three-way call to her sisters Joann Sykes in Oklahoma City, Okla., and Diane Anderson in Clearwater, Fla. The whole family cried and screamed when they received the news of the "unbelievable bombshell."

The Andersons' Spokane home was quickly filled with neighbors and friends, including the family's pastor of 34 years, the Rev. Freeman Simmons, who came over to comfort them. "It hasn't been easy," the astronaut's mother says. "The faith I know Mike had has helped me more than anything else. Knowing he was doing what he really dearly loved, that's a consolation. I know he's with the heavenly Father."

Keith Flamer, a family friend who has known the astronaut since elementary school, was drinking coffee and watching TV in his home near Chicago when the same bombshell hit him. Flamer called his parents in Spokane and asked, "`Is this true? …

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