Bio: Shuttle Columbia Payload Commander Lt. Col. Michael Anderson

Space shuttle astronaut Michael P. Anderson, 43, left his hometown of Spokane years ago, but he never stopped inspiring young people here.

Anderson's former Sunday School teacher carries a signed picture of Anderson, an African-American, speaking to young people. "It shows him in an astronaut suit standing next to the Columbia space ship," the Rev. Happy Watkins of New Hope Baptist Church said Saturday morning. "The kids can look at him and see he is black."

"It's inspiring to show," Watkins added. "If he can aspire to be the best, you can be the best."

Anderson's wife, Sandra Hawkins, formerly of Spokane, and the couple's two daughters, ages 9 and 11, now live in the Houston area, where the space program is based.

Anderson returned to Spokane numerous times to speak with young people in schools.

Anderson was a payload commander and lieutenant colonel in charge of science experiments on the Columbia, NASA's oldest shuttle.

A native of Plattsburgh, N.Y., Anderson was the son of an Air Force man and grew up on military bases. The family eventually settled in the Spokane area, where Watkins remembered Anderson as a quiet and determined youngster.

"He was a very gentle, determined young man who was focused," Watkins said. "One of his early goals was he wanted to be a pilot."

"He was just a role model young man," Watkins said. "It's a real, real heartbreaking tragedy."

His parents and in-laws live in Spokane. A neighbor of the Andersons in Spokane answered the phone Saturday morning, saying the astronaut's parents were not ready to make any statements and were being comforted by friends.

"It's hard on them right now," said the woman, who declined to give her name.

Anderson graduated from Cheney High School, 15 miles southwest Spokane, in 1977, then went to the University of Washington, where he earned a bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy in 1981. He got a master's degree in physics from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., in 1990.

Anderson was an instructor pilot and tactics officer at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York when NASA selected him in 1994. He reported to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston in March 1995, went through a year of training and qualified for flight crew assignment as a mission specialist. Initially, he was assigned technical duties in flight support. He flew to Russia's Mir space station in 1998.

While Anderson loved flying, both in aircraft and spacecraft, he said he didn't like the riskiness of launching.

"There's always that unknown," he said in an interview before Columbia's launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 16.

A career in space was a lifelong dream.

"I was always fascinated by science-fiction shows, shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space, he says. "And going out of your house and looking up and seeing jets fly by, that seemed like another very exciting thing to do. So I knew I wanted to fly airplanes, and I knew I wanted to do something really exciting, and I always had a natural interest in science. So it all kind of came together at a very young age, and I thought being an astronaut would be the perfect job."

Hal Sutter was one of Anderson's teachers at Cheney High School. "He was certainly a student leader," Sutter told KHQ-TV in Spokane Saturday morning. "The kids really respected him."

A plaque showing the space shuttle, along with pictures of Anderson talking to students, is permanently on display at Cheney High School.

Student Gavin Garrett remembered a recent speech Anderson made, recalling that he said a toy airplane he got from his father initially sparked his interest in flight. "He set his goals high, but achievable at the same time," Garrett said.

The shuttle's pilot, William C. McCool of San Diego, also had ties to Washington state. In 1986, he completed flight training and was assigned to the Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 129 at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, about 80 miles north of Seattle.

The Columbia was in space for 16 days, conducting scientific experiments dealing with global climate, human physiology and fire suppression. Anderson was in charge of the shuttle's payload, overseeing science experiments.

Prior to this mission, his last trip into space was on the STS-89, a shuttle-Mir docking mission in late January 1998.

During that nine-day mission, he and his crew transferred more than 9,000 pounds of scientific equipment, logistical hardware and water from the space shuttle Endeavor to Mir.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.