Ten years ago, on Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
One of these astronauts was Maj. Michael Anderson, who completed his master’s degree in physics at Creighton in 1990.
The space shuttle Columbia had an external fuel tank, which keeps hydrogen and oxygen at extremely cool temperatures. To prevent ice from forming on the exterior of this tank, foam insulation was installed. During the Columbia’s take-off, a piece of the foam detached and hit the underside of the Columbia’s left wing at a fast pace, causing damage to the thermal tiles. When the Columbia was re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, super-heated atmospheric gases leaked and caused the explosion, according to a documentary on the tragedy made by NOVA.
Anderson was 44, and left behind a wife and two daughters.
Before he was an astronaut, Anderson was in the Air Force. Around 1988, he was stationed at the Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, flying the airborne command post, a plane that controls missiles. In the midst of this, he enrolled in Creighton graduate school, according to the Rev. Thomas McShane, S.J., a physics professor and the director of Anderson’s graduate research.
McShane remarked that during Anderson’s interview to become an astronaut and a part of the space program, Anderson said that his interviewers were very interested in the research he had done under McShane.
“He suspected that was one of the reasons he was chosen for the program,” McShane said.
Anderson’s hope throughout his life was to become an astronaut.
“Even when he was stationed at Offutt and flying the airborne command post, that was his goal,” McShane said.
He completed one successful mission in the Space Shuttle Endeavor, and his second mission was on the Space Shuttle Columbia.
McShane, along with two graduate students and an undergraduate student, went to see the lift off of the Columbia Space Shuttle.
“That was the last time I saw him until the fateful morning when we saw the streaks in the sky, the remains of the Columbia,” he said.
After Anderson’s first successful mission on the Space Shuttle Endeavor, he came back to Creighton on Sept. 14, 1998.
“At this time he received the Graduate School Alumni Merit Award and presented to the university a Creighton pennant and a spectroscope from the Creighton Observatory which he had carried into orbit. He also gave a public lecture on the space program,” according to the “Physics Newsletter“ of Creighton University.
Sam Cipolla, a physics professor who had Anderson in two of his classes, noted that many of the Air Force students would miss class while they were on a mission and had to make up two to three weeks of homework.
“All of them, Michael included, were always very diligent about doing their homework and either mailing it back to us in a timely manner or bringing it all back when they return, “ Cipolla said. “They’re very dedicated.”
McShane remembers Anderson for his “cheerfulness” and his willingness to do whatever it took to be a graduate student.
In Anderson’s honor, there is a display case and a statue outside of the Hixon-Lied Science building. The plaza outside of Hixon-Lied is also dedicated to Anderson.
“He was a pioneer and a hero, that’s why we should remember him,” McShane said.