ASHLAND – Clay Anderson has always wanted to be a cartoon character. Now his dreams have come true.
The retired astronaut who grew up in Ashland has written his second children’s book, titled “Letters from Space.” Anderson is the star of the book, “Astro Clay.” That was what he called himself as an astronaut and uses for his personal website, astroclay.com, that promotes his public speaking work and the four books he has written so far.
Anderson went to the International Space Station (ISS) twice during his 30 years he worked at NASA – 15 as an astronaut and 15 as an engineer.
During his first trip to space in 2007, Anderson spent five months on the ISS. His duties included performing three space walks for a total of 18 hours in space where he jettisoned two pieces of space hardware that he nicknamed “Nebraska 1” and “Nebraska 2.”
Three years later, Anderson was back in space on a two-week resupply mission including three more spacewalks. The Ashland native retired from NASA in 2013.
Illustrator Susan Batori created the Astro Clay character and the rest of the pictures in the book. Anderson is thrilled with his likeness.
“When I saw the cartoon for me, I just loved it!” he said.
In “Letters from Space,” Astro Clay responds to correspondence from his family and friends while he is on the ISS, just like the real astronaut did. The letters relate to activities he participated in while working as an astronaut on the space station and are based on real letters he received.
“It’s a clever play on actual subjects that I did while I was in space,” Anderson said last week from his home in League City, Texas, near Houston.
Some of the subjects have been simplified, as this book is meant for younger children, Anderson said. The target age is 6 to 8 years old, which includes students in first to third grade.
The book starts out with a letter to his mom, which would have been very similar to something Anderson sent to his own mother right after the launch.
“Dear Mom: I did it! I made it into outer space!”
Anderson’s mother, Alice Anderson was a long-time teacher at Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools and worked at the Ashland Public Library after she retired from teaching. She was one of her son’s biggest fans, and was so proud when he made his childhood dream come true by flying in space. She passed away not long after Anderson’s last space flight.
Astro Clay also writes to people with names Anderson drew from family like his daughter, Sutton, and son, Cole. The author also used names of people he grew up with in Ashland, including Tommy Wild and Julie Beckman, whose brother Brad was a good friend of Anderson’s.
Writing the book brought back childhood memories when Anderson would climb the apple tree in the Beckman’s back yard with his brother, Kirby, and friends Tommy and Brad.
“We’d sit in the apple tree eating apples and reading comic books,” he recalled.
The humorous book also includes subject matter any young child may wonder about space travel. While Anderson often gets questions about how he used the toilet while in zero gravity during speaking engagements for children, he also answered the query about how many pairs of underwear astronauts are allowed on a long-duration mission.
“Dear Mission Control: Just wanted to let you know I’m on day three of my third pair of underwear. I know I’m supposed to wear them for four days before I throw them into the trash. But if they’re still pretty clean should I wear them for a few more days? I know we need to conserve our supplies up here! Thanks! Clayton.”
This is Anderson’s second children’s book and fourth book in total. His memoir, “The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut,” had two printings and sold 14,000 copies after it was released in 2015.
“It sold out when it first came out,” said Anderson.
His second book was an illustrated children’s book that came out in March 2018 and sold 17,000 copies. “A is for Astronaut” was a Nebraska Book Award winner that took children on a space flight using the alphabet as their guide.
The Sleeping Bear Press publication was geared toward older children, Anderson said.
“’A is for Astronaut’ was a stretch book, it challenged them,” he said.
Later that year, Anderson released “It’s a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut’s Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions.” Written for young adults and space buffs, Anderson called upon his experience as an engineer and astronaut to give first-hand answers to questions he received on the website Quora.com.
After the success of “A is for Astronaut,” Anderson was eager to write another children’s book.
“After my first book, Sleeping Bear Press was excited about my next project,” he added.
The publishing firm helped Anderson come up with the concept for his second book geared toward children.
“We came to the ‘Letters from Space’ idea and it rolled from there,” he said.
Anderson is hopeful the publisher will work with him again on another children’s book.
“Maybe my niche is children’s books,” he said. “But I have an inkling to write a novel.”
Anderson’s friend and favorite author, Nevada Barr, has urged him to write a murder mystery set in space. He has penned a few chapters, but nothing close to what is needed for a novel.
For now, the retired astronaut is working on a second volume of “It’s a Question of Space.”
“I had hundreds of questions posed to me since I wrote the first one,” he said.
The first volume was published by University of Nebraska Press. They passed on the sequel, however, so Anderson is self-publishing the book. He has the manuscript “reasonably complete” and is doing much of the legwork himself, he said. He has hired people to draw the cover and assemble the book.
Like his career at NASA, Anderson faces these obstacles with perseverance and resolve. Anderson was turned down 14 times before he was finally accepted into the astronaut program. So being rejected by a publisher is no problem for him. However, it is a slow process that requires a lot of self-motivation, he said.
There have also been challenges to overcome as Anderson’s latest book was released a few weeks ago. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the publisher could not hold an in-person launch party. Instead, the event was hosted online in a virtual setting on Sept. 15.
There will be no book tour like there was with Anderson’s previous books. Personally signing his book for his fans is one of the things he looked forward to during the promotional tours and something he’d rather do in person over the Internet.
“Coming home to sign books for people, shoot, I love it,” he said.
Anderson and his wife, Susan, are also working on marketing the new book by creating a plush toy to accompany the story. He’d love to see kids dragging a stuffed Astro Clay around like they do Woody from “Toy Story,” he said.
Even without the promotional events, Anderson’s new book has garnered good reviews and is selling well, with a bulk sale of 16,000 books placed soon after the release.
“Letters from Space” can be purchased on Amazon and the Sleeping Bear Press website. Anderson hopes the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum will stock them in their gift shop, as he is a member of the museum’s board of directors.
The pandemic has also forced Anderson to change the way he teaches at Iowa State University as a distinguished faculty fellow in aerospace engineering. Classes in the spring were canceled, as were summer courses. During the current semester he has been teaching remotely.
The pandemic has given Anderson a chance to spend more time with his wife, who works for NASA. She has been working from home for the past several months.
He’s also been able to play more golf than usual, but the results are not as he had hoped.
“I wish my game was improved relative to the amount of increase in golfing I’ve experienced,” he said with a laugh.
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