Nebraska's First (And Only) Astronaut Has A New Mission: Guiding The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum Into A New Era

June 9, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

President of the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum Clayton Anderon stands behind a large warplane, arms crossed looking stern. He wears a white, collared NASA shirt and black pants and shoes. He's bald with a small, greyed goatee
President of the SAC Areospace Museum Clayton Anderson (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Nebraska's first and ( thus far only) astronaut Clayton Anderson speaks with Nebraska Public Media News Reporter William Padmore about his new position as president of the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum. He talks about what drove him to accept the position, preparing the museum for the next generation of visitors, and whether or not he would come out of retirement to help save the planet from asteroids!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

William Padmore: So I guess my first question to you is... you're a retired astronaut. You could have done just about anything. Why choose to run a museum?

Clayton Anderson: I chose to retire. I wrote books, 4 with a 5th on the way. And I was a public speaker, a motivational speaker, which I enjoy immensely, but COVID put a pretty big whack on that. And it's starting to come back, Slowly, but surely. But in the interim, I've been on the board here at the museum for about three years. And as part of that board, I knew what was going on. And I came back and supported board meetings and did events here. But when the previous president got sick- I didn't know that he was sick until a group approached me about would I consider doing this job. To come home and be with my son and his wife and my brother and his family and my sister who's nearby and my uncle, and the fact that this museum sits four miles from the house I grew up in- It's in my hometown of Ashland, Nebraska- and I'm, I'm very big about giving back. And so this seemed a godlike way, A Godwink, if you will, that my wife and I prayed about, and we decided that we would accept the challenge to come back here, come home, and for me to run this museum.

Clayton Anderson Welcomes Shakes A Young Guest's Hand as he Welcomes Hime To The Museum
Clayton Anderson shakes a young guest's hand as he welcome him to the museum (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Padmore: Did you know anything about museums prior to you being on the board?

Anderson: No, except that I visited some. But you know, I didn't know much about being an astronaut either and that turned out pretty good.

Padmore: What are the challenges of running a museum? Do you find it difficult compared to being an astronaut?

Anderson: Both have their pits of alligators. I think as a museum president, there are major challenges, right? We're a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and nonprofit means funds have to be raised. We need support from the people around us and that's probably my biggest job. One of my biggest focuses is to help create a vision for the next 25 years. The museum is 25 years old next year. It is focused -it has been focused on Strategic Air Command with some aerospace aspects in the museum. The future in the world and in America is space travel. And so I want to bring a vision here that takes the history and shows how that history and innovations lead us to the future in spaceflight outside of Earth.

Padmore: So we have like the world at our fingertips these days, right? It's much different from even when I was going to museums back when I was a kid on school field trips. How do you make museums accessible and relatable to a generation who's dealing with all this technology?

Anderson: I'm a big interactive guy, I want to find ways to get funding to bring more interactive exhibits to the museum for all ages, adults all the way down to little kids. Virtual reality, drones! I have a vision for a potential escape room here, or perhaps a Challenger Center environment. There are lots of things out there that I want to bring to the Midwest. My goal is to make this museum the gem of the Midwest. But I can't do it alone. I need the help of all Nebraskans of people in Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado, and across the country to make this -this place is really good (already), but I want to make it really great.

Padmore: What, in your eyes, makes museums special? What makes coming out here and actually seeing the immensity of these things worth the trip?

Clayton Anderson guides a guest through a tour of an exhibit based on his former career as an astronaut
Clayton Anderson guides a guest through a tour of an exhibit based on his former career as an astronaut (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Anderson: Well, that's part of it, scale right? For those that have been to Udvar-Hazy in Dulles, Virginia, and seen the discovery shuttle for the first time that I rode on, right. I mean, it's immense and people go, "Holy cow, I didn't know it was that big!" And you know, we have some incredible aircraft and things in here on display. And I hope to get more. But I want to turn that around a little bit. It's one thing to just look at an airplane and read about it but it's another thing to do interactive stuff to help educate you, right? I want you to walk in my museum, our museum, and be entertained, which will lead you to being educated, which I hope will lead you to walk out the door inspired. So entertain, educate and inspire.

Padmore: Do you enjoy space movies?

Anderson: Some of them. Some make me laugh. Some make me think. Some make me bored. But I do love to see them. I mean, I go to most all of them.

Padmore: If an asteroid was hurtling toward Earth, would you come out of retirement? If asked to help blow up the asteroid?

Anderson: I most certainly would probably consider that, yeah. But how much does it pay? You know, it's got to be something in it for me.

Padmore: A generous donation to the museum?

Anderson: There you go. That'll work. That'll work and if I don't have to work with Bruce Willis.

A variety of military planes sit suspended in the air via hools inside one of the museums main hangers
The SAC Aerospace museum houeses a number of classic millitary planes and helicopters. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)