Astronaut lands in Steamboat |

Astronaut lands in Steamboat

Former resident recounts journey on shuttle Atlantis

Melinda Dudley

— Being an astronaut isn’t all work and no play – NASA Mission Specialist Steve Swanson admits he spent some of his time in space trying to do the “perfect flip” in a weightless environment.

Swanson, a 1979 graduate of Steamboat Springs High School, embarked on his first space mission aboard the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis in June.

While in orbit, Swanson performed a spacewalk 300 miles above the Earth and operated robotic arms to assemble new parts for the International Space Station, which is scheduled for completion in 2010. Shuttle flight STS-177 delivered a new starboard truss segment with a solar ray and its necessary energy systems.

Swanson returned to Steamboat this week to return items he took to space with him, including an American flag from the city and a sash made for him by high school students.

Members of the community jammed Centennial Hall’s Citizens Meeting Room on Monday to hear Swanson talk about his adventures. Dozens of children – out of school in observance of Columbus Day – sat on the floor and listened.

The young attendees kept the question-and-answer portion of the afternoon light with questions such as “Did you see any aliens?” and “Do you like Earth or space better?”

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Swanson entertained the crowd with all the details of his space experience, starting with the 8.5-minute trip into orbit at 17,500 miles per hour.

Trying to breathe aboard the shuttle while leaving Earth is like trying to breathe with a “very large person sitting on your chest,” Swanson said.

He also reflected on the mixed emotions one faces during a spacewalk.

“We go around the Earth every 90 minutes, so you get a sunrise and a sunset every hour and a half,” Swanson said. “When I first went out (on the spacewalk), it was dark.

“The sun comes up, and I can see the shuttle, the station and the Earth below. It’s a beautiful sight. Then you realize you’re out in the middle of big space holding onto a tiny handrail.”

Much of the research planned for the International Space Station will focus on supporting human life in space for long periods of time and for future missions to Mars and the moon.

“We have to figure out how to live in space and not have the body deteriorate,” Swanson said.

During his 14 days in space, Swanson’s spine stretched 1 1/2 inches. Astronauts on six-month stays at the space station are required to exercise at least two hours a day to keep their bones and muscles strong, Swanson said.

Sending astronauts to Mars would require almost three years in space, and it would take nine months for a manned spacecraft to even reach the red planet. Astronauts then would have to stay on Mars about a year and half before the planets would align in a desirable position to begin the nine-month return trip, Swanson said.

Steamboat Springs resident Leslie Hunt brought her daughters to hear Swanson speak.

“I thought it was pretty neat that someone from Steamboat went out into space,” Hunt said.

Swanson expects to return to space within the next year or two and is tentatively scheduled for a mission to depart in November 2008. He hopes to follow up his next mission with a six-month stay at the space station.