The old preacher stood before a congregation in despair. He had come back to the humble little clapboard church on the hard side of this city to tell the story of the one among them who had soared so far, but now was gone.

"You see, the way it all got started is that his daddy would take him out to the Air Force base," the Rev. Freeman Simmons, retired pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, told worshipers crowded into a dozen creaking pews. "He would watch all the planes take off and come in. He got to look at the cockpits and see all the instruments. It was always his strong desire to fly."

Feel glory, Simmons shouted, not grief. "He was born for that, he had trained for that, he was ready for that," the minister said. "And he had said if he didn't come back, not to worry about him. He had made his peace."

Soon the organist, Booker T. Whitaker, began swaying and singing a hymn in honor of their fallen son. He kept repeating one verse as winter sunlight gleamed through a glass cross built into one of the church's buckling, wood-paneled walls.

Oh for Lord Jesus

I'll go through storm and rain

And I'll try hard not to complain

I'll do him well

I'll try my best

Michael P. Anderson, lost when the space shuttle Columbia exploded on its return to Earth, had been living the only life he had ever imagined.

He was a rarity: an African American astronaut, one of only seven now part of the space program. And he attained that distinction through a relentless quest that began here long ago, against more than a few odds.

An aunt remembers Anderson the child running in circles around her living room with arms outstretched, tilting left, then right. "We knew even then that if he was going to be anything," Patricia Gibson said, "he was going to be a pilot."

A teacher remembers Anderson the teenager skipping recess sometimes because he wanted to keep tinkering with chemistry experiments. "He was one of those kids you had to use a shoehorn to get out of the lab," said Hal Sautter, who taught science to him at a public high school near here.

Anderson had come of age in the 1960s, when space exploration was all miracle and wonder. He memorized the names of all the early astronauts. He watched "Star Trek" all the time. The sister who shared a room with him recalls Saturday mornings when Anderson would "beam her up" and pretend the top bunk of their bed was the moon. He even wore goggles when he mowed lawns because he feared an eye injury could hurt his chances of flying.

"He was always somewhat different from most kids," his mother, Barbara, told a local paper before Anderson took his first space shuttle flight five years ago. "When everybody else was off playing or doing whatever, he was inside doing experiments with his chemistry set or studying some sort of electronics."

Anderson, who was 43, did not grow up in a world of privilege. His father, Bobbie, joined the Air Force to escape living poor and black in rural Mississippi. Bobbie Anderson had an itinerant career, serving in Vietnam and moving with his wife and four children from bases in New York, Ohio and Arizona before getting stationed near Spokane. He was never a pilot, but worked on flight lines servicing jets.

Gibson, whose husband worked alongside Anderson at an Air Force base in Plattsburgh, N.Y., recalled how years ago the two families often cooked and shared meals together out of necessity.

"Back then, we didn't have much money," she said.

The elder Anderson ran a tight ship at home. But he never pushed his son into the military and always took the family to church on Sunday.

Religion would come to play a central role in Michael Anderson's life. He met his wife, Sandra, at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church and kept in close touch with his old pastor even after becoming a busy astronaut. On the shuttle flight, Anderson brought along a church scrapbook the minister had given him.

Anderson, his wife and two daughters also attended church regularly in Houston, where he had moved to train for shuttle missions.

"Even now, with what happened, I can feel assured that by his being a Christian man, he's in a better place," Bobbie Anderson told reporters Sunday outside his home.

After high school, Anderson went to the University of Washington and earned a degree in physics and astronomy. In an interview before his first shuttle flight, he joked that he had spent so much time studying during those four years, he had managed to see only two movies.

Like his father, Anderson soon joined the Air Force. He spent much of the 1980s stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and flew one of the military's airborne command posts during the waning days of the Cold War.

At the same time, he enrolled in nearby Creighton University and earned a master's degree in physics. Eventually he moved to the same base where his father's military career began, in Plattsburgh, and started training pilots.

In 1994, after logging about 3,000 hours flying military aircraft, and earning numerous commendations, he took the momentous step he had dreamed about since childhood: He signed up to become an astronaut.

"He didn't come from wealth, or the best schools," said Joe Bruce, a former science instructor in Spokane who enlisted Anderson in recent years to talk to local students about space. "But he had an insatiable desire for knowledge."

"It's just me doing what I wanted to do."

-- Michael Anderson

Since the nation's space program began more than 40 years ago, only 14 African Americans have become astronauts. Family and friends say Anderson took quiet pride in being in that select group, but publicly, he shrugged off suggestions or praise that he was a hero or pioneer, and he did not seek out the spotlight.

"Fame is completely irrelevant," Anderson once said in an interview. "For me, this is exciting and I can't imagine wanting to do anything else. This is what I've wanted to do since before I knew what fame was."

He had been accustomed to being an outsider. Spokane is a scruffy city of weather-beaten brick buildings and modest wood-frame homes in northeast Washington state. Only 2 percent of its population of about 200,000 residents is black. At Cheney High School, which is near Fairchild Air Force Base, Anderson was one of four black students in a graduating class of 200.

But he did not seem burdened by racism. His father said on Sunday that he could not recall a time when Michael had run into trouble with white students.

Air Force colleagues also said that Anderson won widespread respect, and encountered little racial strife, because of his easygoing manner and his devotion to his job. Richard Cantwell, who knew Anderson in the early 1990s when they were stationed at Plattsburgh, said he never doubted that the pilot would become an astronaut even though the process is intensely competitive.

"He was as professional as could be," said Cantwell, now the district attorney of Clinton County, N.Y. "He was one of those guys who could do his job so well and make it look so easy."

In recent interviews, Anderson expressed delight with the progress that African Americans are making in the space program. He was the ninth black astronaut to fly on the shuttle and the second to perish; Ronald E. McNair died when the Challenger exploded in 1986.

"I see the future staying pretty bright," Anderson said last week during a National Public Radio interview from the orbiting Columbia. Naming other black astronauts, he said, "Bob Curbeam will be flying in just a few months. Then, of course, later in the year, we'll have Joan Higginbotham flying, and early next year you'll see Stephanie Wilson flying."

On board the shuttle, Anderson was supervising an array of scientific experiments and said he hoped that some would greatly benefit African Americans.

"We have a bioreactor which is growing prostate cancer cells, and prostate cancer has a high rate of return in African American males," he said. "And hopefully, from some of the research we're doing up here, we can really help out in those areas."

"Speaking of the Earth, it's hard to take your eyes off it."

-- Michael Anderson

So much of the romance and the acclaim has faded from an astronaut's life. Shuttles usually take off and land to small crowds. Astronauts do not come home to ticker-tape parades, and there is not much talk any more of the Right Stuff.

Even in Spokane, Anderson was not well-known beyond his church and the schools he had visited since becoming an astronaut. But family and friends say they were struck by the glee he constantly expressed about going into space, as if he were the same starry-eyed kid using his bunk bed for an imaginary romp on the moon.

When he blasted off on the space shuttle Endeavour in 1998, his first flight, Anderson gathered 42 family members and friends in Cape Canaveral. On that trip, he spent eight days in space, docking at the Russian space station Mir, where he transferred supplies and helped oversee scientific experiments. He was not too proud to say that he had been nervous.

In an interview with a campus magazine at the University of Washington a few years ago, Anderson recalled that he had sweaty palms when he pushed the button to dock the space shuttle to Mir. "I'd done it a million times in the simulator," he said, "but when it was real, it was a different moment entirely."

Still, he seemed to take the dangers of shuttle flight in stride. "There's always something unexpected that can happen," he said in one interview. "But I think you prepare for that by realizing that the benefits are worth the risk."

Friends and family say they do not remember hearing Anderson complain about the long wait an astronaut has to reach space. Or all the late nights he had to spend studying after putting his two young daughters to bed. They remember him returning from his first shuttle flight speaking breathlessly about seeing the curvature of the Earth, of "blues so blue and whites so white," and of experiments that in some small way might improve human lives. He also spoke of wanting the nation to reach Mars and said he hoped that it would be in his lifetime.

"I think some of what he believed went all the way back to when he was young watching 'Star Trek,' " said Bruce, the science instructor who invited him to local classes. "He loved the idea that there was a fantastic world out there."

At Anderson's old church on Sunday, there were not many tears after the current pastor, Rev. John Claiborne, gave his sermon. He urged the congregation to find inspiration in Anderson's short, but glorious, life.

"Someone once suggested that unless a man has something to die for, he has no reason to live," the minister said. "We thank God for Michael, because he died doing something he loved."

Researcher Madonna Lebling and special correspondent Kimberly Edds contributed to this report.

A week before Columbia's scheduled landing, Anderson floats over fellow astronaut Ilan Ramon. "He had an insatiable desire for knowledge," recalled a former science teacher.Barbara and Bobbie Anderson talk to reporters about their son, astronaut Michael P. Anderson, on the day the Columbia disintegrated.Anderson logged 3,000 hours flying military aircraft before deciding in 1994 he would try to become an astronaut. Anderson with sisters Diane and Joann in 1964. His interests in space and flight were evident even as a young boy.