CU grad inspires students from space station

BOULDER – His favorite thing to do in space? Spacewalk, of course.

Does he float in his space dreams? Not yet. But he’s still out of this world for another four-and-a-half months. So who knows what might happen.

Those were a couple of the lighter moments of astronaut Steve Swanson’s visit with University of Colorado students on Wednesday.

Swanson, a CU graduate, spent about 30 minutes chatting via Skype with roughly 150 students gathered at Fiske Planetarium. Swanson was projected larger than life in the planetarium from his perch on the International Space Station orbiting the Earth as students approached a microphone one by one to ask questions.

Most of the inquiries were about general life in space, but Swanson also fielded questions like what would he want to impart to lawmakers as to why funding NASA is important.

Swanson said the return on investment on the research and development done in space is huge given the companies that benefit or are spun out from it.

And, he said, “We get to inspire young kids to go and get involved in math and the sciences, which I think is important to our country.”

Swanson, a Steamboat Springs High School grad, got his bachelor’s degree in engineering physics at CU before going on to earn a master’s in applied science and computer systems from Florida Atlantic University and a doctorate in computer science from Texas A&M University.

Asked for an example of a failure in his life that he had to overcome along the path to becoming an astronaut, Swanson admitted that he didn’t always stress his studies as much as he should have while at CU, sometimes getting “sidetracked with other things.” He honed in, he said, at graduate school and beyond.

“You can have one thing or two things go wrong, and as long as you’ve shown you learned and improved from them you can go on and succeed,” Swanson said.

Swanson has previously flown on two space shuttle missions before launching to the ISS with Russian astronauts this time around. He said the body goes through a whole other level of adaptation during a long-duration flight as opposed to a couple of weeks in orbit aboard the space shuttle.

A couple of students asked what sorts of technologies they could work on here that would help for comfort and sanity levels for the astronauts on longer trips. One student in particular asked about what value being able to grow fresh produce might have.

“I definitely think it would be helpful,” Swanson said. “I think it would be great for your psyche to be able to tend to something and take care of it and watch it grow.”

A wider variety of food, smoother communications with family members on Earth, and more durable living systems were all on Swanson’s wish list. He said he and his crew mates just spent a day fixing their toilet on the ISS while also trying to carry out their other duties.

“If you could get those things to be a little more robust so you didn’t have to work on them all the time … I think that would really help for longer missions to Mars,” Swanson said.

Not everything in space is about research and advancing mankind to another realm.

Asked what his favorite thing to do inside the space station is, and Swanson – who said he’s got Nerf guns on the way to the ISS in a future shipment – answered like any 5-year-old might.

“This floating thing is really a kick,” he said, noting the ability to propel himself off of walls and perform all kinds of acrobatics. “It’s like if you’re a kid and you find the best playground in the world and you get to stay there for five months.”

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