Life After Nasa

May 2, 2016

by Edith Lynn Beer, photos by Mark Dyrud & Nasa

Astronaut Steven Roy Swanson has lived all over the world. When he was a child his father’s work took his family to such places as South America, France, Italy, and eventually Steamboat Springs, Colorado where he graduated high school. When Steve became an adult, his studies and work brought him to Florida, Texas, and Arizona. And he was, for 200 days, a resident in outer-space.

Yet, when NASA announced last fall that he was retiring, it took him and his wife, Mary, after having lived in all 2these extraordinary places, only a nanosecond to decide to move to Boise, Idaho.

Steve proclaimed to his family that he was anything but retiring. Steve indicated, “I like to have balance in my life, and work is still part of that for me. I am satisfied with what I have done in outer space. Now it is my turn to help the next generation accomplish their goals.”

Steve explains that Boise is like a small Silicon Valley. “There are excellent opportunities to work here in high-tech industries. Hewlett Packard and Micron Technology, Inc. as well as many start up companies are here.”

Boise State University invited Steve to be their Distinguished Educator in Residence. The position requires him to multi-task, which Steve has had much practice doing. One of his jobs in the past was as station commander on a five and a half months outer space multi-national cooperative mission. As the commander he had to handle any conflicts aboard and was the conduit to mission control in Houston, Texas. Sometimes mission control, because not being in outer space, has a different view of a problem than the astronauts. While managing conflicts in space, he had to make sure that he understood everyone correctly, since not all the international astronauts knew English well. He had also to figure out how to fix the old, problematic, Russian-built toilet on the Space Station.

One of Steve’s jobs at Boise State is to mentor students who are working on projects associated with NASA. This past spring one of these projects involved creating a tool to be used during spacewalks. The tool was designed to pick up at least three samples of soil on an asteroid, the moon, or even Mars, without any cross-contamination of the samples. The group then went to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas to demonstrate their newly developed tool at the center’s simulated microgravity pool, and at its neutral buoyancy laboratory (NBL). “One of the side benefits in such a project which requires collaboration,” Steve specifies, “is it teaches each individual the importance of teamwork.”1

Steve talks as well to high school students throughout the State about what it was like to launch, live, and work in space and the benefits of a career in science or engineering, especially at NASA. He describes the opportunities available at Boise State University that can also help them accomplish their goals and dreams. He narrates a movie about his life in outer space and talks about the fantastic team at NASA of which the astronauts are just a small part. He finds that many high school students are very excited at the prospect of working at NASA or in the space industry. Since Steve believes diversity in a team is very important, he and others at Boise State are trying to create interest in science and engineering to a broader group. Hence, Steve is presently working as a mentor on a Boise State sponsored, all girls FIRST <For Inspiration Recognition of Science Technology> Robotics Team. This past March they competed at the FIRST Robotics regional competition in Boise. The team had only 6 weeks in which to build a robot which can get over several obstacles such as a 5’x 5” beam, go under a low bar, or open a gate. Plus, it had to be able to pick up a 10” diameter foam ball and shoot it into a goal, all while avoiding a defender from another team.

Both Steve and his wife, who is a nurse practitioner, love Boise’s lifestyle. “It’s great strolling downtown along the river. We like the shops, the variety of restaurants and microbreweries, and when you stand inline in the grocery store,” Steve points out, “chances are you’ll talk to the person next to you and if you talk long enough you’ll find that there is someone you both know. I like that.”

Mary and Steve’s daughter and two sons, all grown, are leading their own lives. Steve says, “We get together to ski and in the summer to backpack for as long as a week at a time. Other cousins and siblings will come along too. We will be as many as 10 to 5 people with 7 to 8 dogs on our backpacking trip. We’ll set up tents at a base camp and then do day hikes from there. And sometimes when we come out, if we are near a nice lake, we may stay for a day or two there to swim and boat.”3

It would take another article to describe all of Steve’s extra curricular activities. He enjoys mountain biking, hiking, fly fishing, skiing, basketball, and lifting weights at the Boise State’s recreation center.

While listing his activities, Steve highlights that he enjoys Idaho’s change of seasons. “The weather is temperate in Boise even in the winter, and when we want to ski or do other winter activities, we just take the short trip up to the mountains.” He and Mary drive frequently to Bogus Basin, to nearby Tamarack and Brundage Resort, for skiing or to take advantage of the backcountry powder skiing serviced by snow cats.

Steve says, “My parents who started us traveling have retired here. They knew why. Mary and I moved here only a few months ago but we feel at home here, really at home.”