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Explore the universe

An interview with astronaut Steve Swanson

Some kids grow up knowing they want to be astronauts. Not Steve Swanson. For Swanson, a Colorado resident, the realization came at age 25 when he was finishing up his master’s degree in computer systems. 

“I really started to think about what I wanted to do in the long-term at that point in my life,” says Swanson. “That’s when I came up with the idea of being an astronaut.” 

Since then, Swanson has visited space three times as a NASA astronaut, logging a total of 195 days away from Earth. He’s completed five spacewalks – activities performed outside of the spacecraft – and assumed command of the International Space Station for Expedition 40. 

Anythink recently spoke with Swanson to learn more about his space experience and what it takes to become an astronaut. 

Q: Once you decided to become an astronaut at age 25, what did that path look like?
Steve Swanson: At that point, I knew of course that I needed some more experience. I started a job – it was a good job – and after a year I started working for NASA. At the same time, I started going back to school and ended up with a PhD [in computer science]. I worked 11 years at NASA and had a great job in the Aircraft Operations Division, and that all allowed me then to become an astronaut. 

Q: Astronauts go through rigorous physical and mental training in order to prepare themselves for space travel. That said, what was the most surprising thing about being in space?
SS: What was surprising was just how fun it was to float. That sensation and the things you can do in that environment are much different than on Earth. It’s a great time and it’s why everybody wants to go back so badly. There really is no preparation for that. 

Q. Very few people get to experience space travel. What did you learn about yourself throughout the process of becoming an astronaut?
SS: It takes perseverance, just like anything else in life. Hardly anybody gets selected on their first try. So you just keep trying to do a good job at your work. You try to improve yourself. It’s the same thing as in most parts of life – just with a different goal. Perseverance and hard work gives you good opportunities. You might not always succeed, but it’s worth a try. 

Q: Were you selected as an astronaut candidate on your first try?
SS: No, I was not. Since I was 25, I started throwing applications in, and I didn’t get an interview until 1996 [age 36] and was first selected in 1998 [age 38]. 

Q: What stands out as your most memorable experience in space?
SS: Spacewalks are probably the most memorable part of your experience. They’re wonderful. Many emotions go on throughout a spacewalk. There’s the beauty of the earth that you can see from your own space vehicle – that’s what your space suit is. There’s that view, and at the same time it’s strenuous work. It’s also a little bit – not scary, but there is a vacuum on the other side of that space suit. And you have a lot of work to do. It’s not easy to work in that suit, so at the same time it’s hard and it’s fun. It’s an interesting feeling, but it ends up being a great feeling and something you’ll never forget. 

Q: Can you describe what spacewalking is like?
SS: The space suit that we’re in is big and bulky. It’s a pressure suit. On Earth it weighs almost 300 pounds, so it’s got some mass to it. Before you even get out the door, it’s about five hours of prep work just to get in the suit and get everything situated. You go through a system where you get rid of the nitrogen in your blood so that you won’t get “the bends” because inside the space suit pressure is about 4.3 pounds per square inch – or kind of like 35,000 feet if you look at it that way. You go through that whole process, and then you head on out the door and hatch to get out. The airlock actually faces down so as soon as you come out you roll and get this view of Earth. It’s fantastic. In that moment, you take it all in. It can be overwhelming just that first little bit. But then you continue on. When there’s nothing between you and Earth 250 miles below, it’s an interesting feeling. 

Q: Do you have plans to go back?
SS: I would love to, but right now I’m at the end of the line, and it’s a pretty long line. I’m happy, and I had a good time doing what I did. Of course, as astronauts, we’d all love to go back in a heartbeat. But we have to figure out what’s next – and I’m not sure what that is yet. 

Q: What do you want the general public to understand about your profession or about space exploration in general?
SS: First, that it’s a good investment. Exploration as human beings is part of what we do – we’ve always explored. Next is to know that there are many benefits. We get a return on the dollar through all of the technologies that have been invented through space exploration and NASA. They turn into new things that we can use every day. The companies that make those [products] provide jobs. At the same time, besides all of those benefits, we also help inspire students to study math and the sciences – which is a great thing for the nation – to continue to be a leading edge in technology.

Q: What type of advice do you have for those young students who want to become astronauts or space engineers?
SS: You pretty much have to be in a science, math or engineering field for your job – which is quite wide open. There’s lots of things you can do in that area. The other thing is that there’s no one specific thing that you have to study. Find something that you like to do and do it well. NASA is always looking for people that do their job well and are good in their field. At the same time, be well-rounded. Do other things in life. Go exploring on your own. It could be music, it could be sports – it doesn’t really matter – but just be sure to do other things, too. Don’t be one-dimensional.