A NASA space shuttle utilizes two 3-million-pound solid rocket boosters to amass 6-million pounds of thrust. Add another million pounds of thrust from the main engines, put it all in a vehicle that weighs about 6-million pounds and you’re on your way to space.
Steve Swanson in space
Steve Swanson in space, photo courtesy of NASA
“There’s no doubt that you’ve just taken off. It’s like a big press that hits you in the back because you’re lying on your back when you take off. When it hits and lights off, you know it. But after eight and a half minutes, you’re done and it’s not that bad. You’re floating from then on.”

That’s how former astronaut Steve Swanson, who spent more than 200 hours in space, describes takeoff. He has since traded his view out the windows of the space shuttle and aboard the space station for a spot on the Boise State University campus. He defines his job simply.

“Well my official title is Distinguished Educator in Residence. It’s the position Barbara Morgan used to have, so I’m the Barbara Replacement Unit, the BRU.”

Swanson became a Professor of the Practice at Boise State in February 2014 before becoming distinguished educator in residence in 2015. While he has hung up his astronaut suit, he isn’t slowing down.

“In space, it’s a 12-hour day. You start work at 7:30 and you end work at 7:30 with about two-and-a-half hours of working out during that time period, but besides that, you’re working. Your day is scheduled really tightly into five-minute increments all through the day. You follow the schedule that mission control has put together for you. Most of it, probably 50 percent of it is maintenance on board, either routine or things break just like any ship so we make sure those are fixed. And the rest of your time is doing science.”

At Boise State, he already has evolved the Microgravity program into a Vertically Integrated Project (VIP), meaning students can be part of a long-term research experience. He leads another VIP course in robotics, is conducting research for a $1 Million NSF grant called STEM+C aimed at project-based learning for elementary students and is the advisor for Boise State’s Space Broncos, a student organization open to all majors with an interest in space and NASA.

“They all like NASA and space so their job is just to promote it and have fun with it anyway they can,” he said. “I’m just there to help them out. They’re working on a virtual reality project so they can show the surface of Mars and take that to events to share with other people.” Swanson also leads the Microgravity Undergraduate Research Team through the College of Engineering. The team will participate in NASA’s Micro-g NeXT program that challenges undergraduate students to design, build and test tools with the goal of solving a problem in space exploration.

“They work all year on their projects and they test it here and then take it down to NASA for more testing. They get to meet people from NASA and get a little bit of a sense of what it’s like to work for NASA. They’re working on a pneumatic drill core sampler that could be used to collect samples on an asteroid or another planet. It’s really cool.”

The NASA Experience

Swanson wasn’t the typical kid who grew up daydreaming about space. It wasn’t until after graduate school that he ever really considered becoming an astronaut.

“I was a little late maybe in deciding what career I wanted. I knew it was going to be engineering or science, but at 25 I had just finished my master’s and I really started to think ‘well what is it that I want to do for a career?’ It wasn’t until then that I decided to be an astronaut so I started to work towards it.”

He wrote a letter to NASA who responded by letting him know he wasn’t qualified. So he took a job as a software engineer in Arizona. About a year later he heard back from NASA, letting him now that he still wasn’t qualified to be an astronaut, but that he had been invited to join their ranks as a systems and flight engineer in the Aircraft Operations Division of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. While there, Swanson earned his doctorate in computer science from Texas A&M University.

In 1998, he was selected as a mission specialist by NASA and started training that summer. Swanson has been aboard the ISS three times, beginning in 2007. On June 8 of that year, he took off aboard shuttle mission STS-117 with a crew to deliver and install a set of solar arrays to the station. During this first trip Swanson spent nearly 14 hours of what NASA calls “extra vehicular activity,” otherwise known as spacewalk.

After traveling 5.8 million miles in just 14 days, Swanson and the rest of the crew landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Two years later, he completed a similar mission to deliver the final set of solar arrays and equipment to the ISS. Again, Swanson completed two spacewalks totaling more than 12 hours.

His third and final trip to the space station came in March of 2014 aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan. “I had to learn Russian before my mission on the Soyuz. Everyone speaks to mission control in Russian, all the buttons are in Russian.”

While takeoff on an American shuttle can be harrowing, the Russian Soyuz rocket was even more of an adventure.

 

“It’s thrust to weight ratio is very small so when it lights off you don’t even know if you’ve taken off. There’s a little shaking, a little noise, you can tell something is going on.”

Swanson said one of the biggest differences between the two vehicles is the lack of windows in the Soyuz, something sure to make even the bravest astronauts a little claustrophobic.

“On my flight I didn’t realize the third stage was a smaller engine so at the beginning I didn’t feel like it was lit at all. You’re used to feeling a little acceleration and I didn’t feel anything. I’m thinking ‘oh my gosh, this is going to be really bad.’”

Luckily, the third stage had gone off without a hitch and soon Swanson heard the reassuring voices of Russian mission control letting him know that everything was normal. “For ten seconds or so I didn’t think it went off.” On his final voyage, Swanson spent 169 days in space, covering almost 72 million miles in orbit. After two months on board Swanson took command of the station.

An IDAHO Assignment

Swanson said his time at NASA led to many great friendships, including one with former astronaut Barbara Morgan, who helped forge his connection to Boise State.

“NASA was almost like a big family. The people I spent time with in space, the people in mission control, everybody is like family.”

After spending time in New York, Texas, Colorado and space, Swanson said he is happy to be in the Gem State with his wife and children.

“One of the best things is being in the Rockies again. I grew up in the Rockies. I love the outdoors and Houston just didn’t have that aspect at all. It was tough to live there for a long time. Every vacation my family made was to Idaho or Colorado, at least three times a year, we never went anywhere else. Maybe now we can go to the Caribbean or something.”

BARBARA MORGAN RECEIVES FIRST IDAHO MEDAL OF ACHIEVEMENT

Earlier this year, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter awarded Barbara Morgan the state’s highest civilian honor, the Idaho Medal of Achievement.

A former NASA astronaut and Idaho educator, Morgan joined Boise State in 2008 as a distinguished educator in residence. During her time on campus, she provided vision and leadership to K-12 STEM teachers throughout Idaho and acted as a mentor to science and engineering students across the university.

“It is uniquely fitting that the first recipient of Idaho’s highest civilian honor goes to a pioneering educator who brought the promise of space flight to our students from a classroom above the clouds,” Otter said. “Her career as an educator and then an astronaut has inspired a generation of young people not only about the importance of science but how high you can go when you aspire to do great things.”

On Aug. 8, 2007, Morgan took off aboard space shuttle flight STS-118 to the International Space Station. Morgan and the crew added a truss segment, a new gyroscope and external spare parts to the station and added a new system to allow extended missions to the station. While on board Morgan served as educator, loadmaster, shuttle and station robotic arm operator, and flight deck crewmember for entry and landing. She traveled 5.3 million miles in space over 12 days, 17 hours and 55 minutes.