Retired NASA spaceflyer Clayton Anderson is the first speaker in a new virtual initiative designed to keep astronauts in the public eye.
Anderson will kick off The Virtual Astronaut Live Event Series, which will feature talks and other events involving astronauts around the world. The series is meant to start another round of astronaut encounters, which have been largely suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Anderson will speak Tuesday (Sept. 15) at 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT), and you can purchase tickets for the $20 online event here.
The Nebraska-born Anderson flew on one of the last space shuttle missions, STS-131 in 2010, and also served on the International Space Station (ISS) for several months as part of expeditions 15 and 16 in 2007.
Anderson flew during the early days of social media when, he said, NASA was cautious and more restrictive about direct astronaut communications with the public. Nevertheless, Anderson tried his best to stay accessible through tools such as a blog that he kept during his space station mission.
Anderson said he's excited to be a pioneer for the new Virtual Astronaut series, which includes Space.com as a media partner. He typically gives about 20 talks in person a year and said he is eager to start doing such outreach work again, albeit virtually. "I get to be the first one out of the gate," Anderson told Space.com of his talk, the first of the series.
Each of the featured astronauts will support charity partners, and Anderson picked Reading Is Fundamental to tie in with his theme of promoting literacy — and for launching his new children's book, "Letters From Space" (Sleeping Bear Press, 2020), which was illustrated by Hungarian artist Susan Batori.
Back when Anderson was an astronaut, communications options were fewer. Today's astronauts routinely post on social media, place phone calls and, if connectivity is good enough on the ISS, even do video calls with family. But astronauts of the late 1990s, the 2000s and early 2010s mostly used email, and astronauts before then were mainly limited to communications through Mission Control.
Anderson's new book reflects the email environment in which he worked. "They're basically parodies of letters that I wrote — emails, essentially — to people when I was in space, about various things that were happening in orbit," Anderson said of the pieces that make up his book. "For example, early in the book on one of the first flight days — Flight Day 3 — I write a letter to my mom, and I tell her I made it into space and my launch was successful."
Anderson said he regrets missing the chance to read children's books directly from orbit, as astronauts after him have done through programs such as Story Time in Space. "I would have been perfect for that," he said.
Anderson has written several books in his post-NASA career. His first children's book, illustrated by Brooklyn's Scott Brundage, was called "A is for Astronaut: Blasting Through the Alphabet" (Sleeping Bear Press, 2018).
Anderson acknowledged that the internet has advantages for today's children, especially because they can continue to learn and participate in events safely during the pandemic. But reading old-fashioned books (even if on new-fangled devices) still has relevance, he said. Anderson learned about solving problems by reading "The Hardy Boys" as a child, he said, and books of today, no matter their topic, bring kids into inspiring new worlds.
"For me, as a young person, I could jump into a book and I could immediately be someone or something else. I grew up on comic books dreaming of being Superman and Batman," Anderson said. Today's kids may have different interests and heroes, he said, and that's great. The point is to get them engaging with reading and with learning from a young age, to bring them "into big dreams and really cool futures."
"When we have opportunities like this to produce children's books, that can maybe give a child the same kind of push that I got when I watched the Apollo 8 astronauts go behind the moon way back in 1968 on Christmas Eve," Anderson said. "My tagline is, we need to read. We all need to read."
Naturally, Anderson stays engaged in the space program through former colleagues and watching the industry. He highlighted SpaceX's Demo-2 commercial crew mission this year as potentially part of a new movement of space companies able to bring people into space regularly, including members of the public.
"Space is cool again, and that's a good thing," Anderson said, citing "the success of Elon Musk and his SpaceX folks and hopefully, very soon, the success of Boeing and their [commercial crew vehicle] Starliner, coupled with the various people out there like … Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada and Virgin Galactic. We're on the threshold of a new era when it may be possible for tourists, people on the ground, to take that trip into space."
Anderson said a long-time expression of his has been "never bet against Elon Musk," but he stressed that SpaceX still needs to show it can bring people into orbit and back consistently and safely. He compared Musk's challenge to Anderson's ongoing efforts to play a good 18-hole round of golf.
"On the first hole, if I hit a drive straight down the middle [of the fairway], that's one in a row," he said. "That's where people are with SpaceX and humans. Musk now needs to focus to make it two in a row, three in a row."
Other confirmed speakers in The Virtual Astronaut Live Event Series are:
- Wendy Lawrence (Sept. 25): Celebrating STS-86, the story of "Too Tall and Too Small," and missions to Mir.
- Steve Smith (Oct. 6): An astronaut's guide to coaching at 17,500 mph (28,000 km/hr).
- John "Danny" Olivas (Oct. 14): Embracing our past to launch into the future.
- Pamela Melroy (Oct. 24): Building the ISS: STS-92 to STS-120.
- Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger (Oct. 27): Spooky space stories and astronaut outfits.
- Leroy Chiao and other astronauts (TBD) (Oct. 30): 20th anniversary of the ISS.
- Leroy Chiao (Nov. 2): Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ISS and voting in space
- Greg Chamitoff, Frank Culbertson, Greg H. Johnson, Mark Polansky, Garrett Reisman and Steve Swanson at times to be announced.
Space.com is a media partner of the "The Virtual Astronaut" series.
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.