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Space Shuttle Columbia

Anderson: Bright future for black astronauts

Michael Anderson was one of a handful of African American astronauts.
Michael Anderson was one of a handful of African American astronauts.

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Columbia payload commander Michael Anderson, 43, was a trailblazer in NASA's program. Bruce Burkhardt reports.
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Astronaut Michael Anderson saw a "really bright" future for African-American astronauts in space.

In an interview Wednesday night, Anderson, the only black crew member on space shuttle Columbia, pointed out that three other black astronauts were scheduled to be on shuttle flights in the next year.

In addition, some of the research the crew was conducting onboard Columbia had an important benefit for black males. A bioreactor on the space shuttle was growing cells of prostate cancer, which has a high rate among African-Americans.

"Hopefully, from some of the research we're doing up here, we can really help out in those areas," Anderson told National Public Radio's Tavis Smiley in what was the astronaut's last national interview.

As the payload manager, Anderson managed the hundreds of science experiments in the laboratory.

"With the help of all my crewmates, that's where we spend most of our time each day, in the payload bay working on those experiments," Anderson told NPR from Columbia.

He said his job began well before the mission, making sure the payloads were designed properly so the astronauts could get accurate results.

"So far, I have to tell you, we've been really pleased with what we're seeing," Anderson said. "We're exceeding almost all of our expectations, and we're getting some really good science."

Astronaut Robert Curbeam was scheduled to fly on a shuttle mission in the next few months, and Joan Higginbotham was scheduled to be on a shuttle mission later in the year. Early next year, astronaut Stephanie Wilson was scheduled to fly.

"It looks like the future's really bright," Anderson said.

Anderson's sister said Saturday she was still grappling with the report of her brother's presumed death. The news, she told a reporter, "hasn't set in yet, and it probably won't until I hear something very definite."

As she spoke, Joanne, who would not give her last name, was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the names of the seven space shuttle Columbia astronauts. Beside her was an autographed photograph of her brother that he had given her before launch.

Anderson's sister Joanne
Anderson's sister Joanne

"The United States of America has many, many problems -- racism is one of them," she said, "but only in America could he have achieved what he did achieve."

Becoming an astronaut was what her brother "dreamed of doing most of his life," she said, adding that he made sacrifices to achieve that goal and always knew he'd reach it. "It was a future reality to him. We knew when he set his sights on that, that that's what he would do."

Joanne said her family lives in different areas of the country, making the experience more difficult to bear. But, she said, the family would travel to join with Michael's wife and two children, who had been preparing to greet Michael upon his return when they heard the news.

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