Assembly at school named in his honor reminds students of the contributions of Columbia astronaut and Cheney High School graduate Michael Anderson
Ten years ago, the West Plains lost one of its own in a tragic incident.
Lt. Col. Michael Anderson was one of the seven astronauts who perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster Feb. 3, 2003.
An assembly last week at Michael Anderson Elementary on Fairchild Air Force Base celebrated Anderson’s contributions to the space program.
Students at the school produced a special edition of Eagle News, the student news program, which included a brief biography of Anderson’s life. The Michael Anderson Elementary Choralaires sang a few songs, dressed in tuxedo T-shirts, putting their talents on display.
Col. Brian Newberry, Commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, said Anderson grew up for a time in Oklahoma, watching shows like Star Trek and seeing the trails from spacecraft returning to Earth. His family, including his three sisters, eventually came to Spokane, as his father was stationed at Fairchild. He attended fifth-grade at Blair Elementary and graduated from Cheney High School in 1977. Four years later, Anderson received his Bachelor of Science in physics/astronomy from the University of Washington.
Anderson enlisted in the Air Force, logging thousands of hours in KC-135s, the plane model currently stationed at Fairchild. After being selected in 1994 for NASA Group 15, he made his first spaceflight in 1998 on Shuttle Endeavor.
Newberry said students are reminded daily of the lessons that Anderson sought to teach them. When he wasn’t busy as an astronaut, Anderson placed a heavy importance on education, traveling to several area schools to speak with students.
“It was most appropriate for this school to be his namesake,” Newberry said.
The school’s name serves as a daily reminder of the potential within each student.
“With a school like this, we’ll never forget him,” Newberry said.
Lt. Col. Dwight Peake, a former NASA employee, said he was in third-grade when NASA experienced the Apollo 1 fire in January 1967. By the fifth grade, however, Apollo 8 had sent back the first pictures of Earth rising over the moon.
“Everybody wanted to be an astronaut,” Peake said.
During the assembly, some of the students came forward to share what their dream careers were, many of which included being an astronaut. Stars were cut out and placed on a blue backdrop behind the speaking podium. Written on them were dreams from even more students, sharing their hope for a better future.
Peake remembers Feb. 3, 2003, and how it affected several aspects of his life. The loss wasn’t only felt within NASA, but was widespread across the entire U.S.
“It was a very sad day for me, NASA and our whole country,” Peake said.
Several area leaders were in attendance, as well as base personnel. Anderson’s mother, Barbara, who still lives in the Spokane area, was a special guest at the assembly.
Barbara Anderson said each year, there is still some sadness.
“Thinking about this time of the year isn’t easy,” she said.
Her son stood for traits like honesty, integrity and truth.
“Everything that was good,” she said. “That’s what he was about.”
Anderson left behind his wife and two daughters, then ages 9 and 11. Barbara Anderson said the first year was especially rough for the family.
“It was a big loss, but we have so much to be thankful for,” she said.
At the event’s conclusion, visitors were offered a tour of the school, where students had completed projects in conjunction with the anniversary.
While the assembly carried the weight of the anniversary of the shuttle’s demise, a message of hope and optimism was prevalent. The focus on the future was directed to the students, which included the message that one day, an American will set foot on Mars.
“You’re going to carry the torch of innovation,” Newberry said.
Just like Anderson many years ago, one of the students at the elementary school could be the next to go into space. All it takes is a dream.
James Eik can be reached at email@example.com.