by Jeff Cunningham
Years ago, a young man found himself about to finish grad school, and began to contemplate his career path in life for the first time. He knew that he wanted to be in a field in science and technology–which was fitting, given that his bachelor’s was in Engineering Physics and that the advanced degree he was about to earn was in Computer Systems.
Finding one’s passion is one of the easier–and more enjoyable–pursuits in life, but finding a way to make a productive career out of it is something that precious few among us are fortunate enough to achieve (and even fewer now with the loss of so many of the jobs that people go to college for). The more the young man thought about it, the more sure he became aware that he was not content to spend the rest of his life “sitting in an office all day long every day.” Long before he would be eventually be introduced to the ‘Verse, this much he knew: he aimed to misbehave. From there, deciding to become an astronaut almost seemed like the logical course. He had no idea if such a thing would really prove possible in the end–but doing the impossible makes us mighty.
This is the story of Steve “Swanny” Swanson, possibly the first Browncoat in space, who just assumed command of the International Space Station earlier this week. Born in Syracuse, New York to a military family, Swanson moved around often with his parents and siblings until his father left the service and began working for General Electric. They wound up settling down in time for him to attend the eigth grade in the humbly-named town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, an agricultural ranching community blessed with a world-famous ski resort and all the trappings that a healthy tourism industry brings. Swanson’s considered it to be his true home ever since.
After completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado in 1983, he opted for a change of scenery and warmer weather and left for the Computer Science program (and surrounding beaches) at Florida Atlantic University. It was there that he first applied to NASA…and didn’t quite succeed in getting in. Unwilling to let his proverbial sky be taken from him, Swanson applied for and was hired with GTE as a software engineer working on the real-time software of telephone system multiplexer/demultiplexers.
His patience and hard work were rewarded in some measure when he was hired by NASA a year later to work as Systems Engineer and a Flight Engineer in the Aircraft Operations Division of the Johnson Space Center in Houston working on the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA). The STA is a space shuttle flight simulator…that flies. The idea was that they’d take a Gulfstream twin-jet aircraft, and then ruin it.
You see, all of the space shuttle’s fuel is used at launch, which means that when it comes back down to land, it must do so unpowered, with no engines, and “glide it in,” which works only slightly better than it did for Serenity.
With no way to pull up and try again, the astronauts only got one shot at a safe touchdown, which meant training the heck out of landing what became affectionately known to the astronaut corps as “the flying brick.” Not content with just a ground-based simulator, NASA insisted on taking the Gulfstream II and deliberately mucking up its flight performance by modifying its aerodynamic profile to create more drag and kicking the engines in reverse at 35,000 feet during practice landings. They even installed working instrument panels and blacked out the side windows to create the perfect replica of a shuttle cockpit.
“[It] was a great job for me. I could not have gotten any luckier on a job than that one,” said Swanson, “I ended up really liking airplanes and the control systems…I loved the idea that at the same time I was getting to fly airplanes as part of the crew, as flight engineer, and so it was a perfect job.” During his time at Johnson, Swanson made improvements to the STA’s navigation and control systems and threw in a real-time wind determination algorithm to boot. He can actually quantify just how much of a leaf on the wind he is–and, he figured, what’s the harm in taking her out and essentially giving yourself free space shuttle flight training for, you know, “testing” the tweaks he’d made?
Finally, at long last, in May of 1998, Swanson was selected as a mission specialist, the non-pilot class of space shuttle astronaut, and began training soon afterwards. What most don’t realize, though, is that getting accepted as an astronaut is no guarantee of a flight into the Black. In fact, many astronauts experience no small amount of discouragement in the interminable wait between “getting in” and their first flight assignment–a wait that can last years for some, and for some of the unlucky people who came in on the tail end of the program, may actually never end. NASA does their best to keep them busy in the meantime. Swanson in particular was assigned to Space Station Operations and worked in Robotics and as a Spacecraft Communicator (CAPCOM) for space station and shuttle missions. Dr. Swanson also continued to train for Extravehicular Activities (EVAs, better known as space walks), the shuttle and station robotic arms, and shuttle rendezvous.
Somewhere along the way (well, it would have had to have been at least four years later), he found something that no doubt helped give him encouragement to keep trying, to keep flying (I know it’s certainly helped me and countless others). At some point, he discovered Firefly, and Dr. Steve Swanson, PhD. became Steve Swanson, Browncoat. It turns out that there’s actually a growing number of them at NASA, slowing infiltrating the organization by converting their coworkers. In fact, in 2006, some mischievous Browncoats at Mission Control couldn’t restrain themselves from appending Mal’s “secret of flyin'” speech to the daily report faxed up to the crew of the space station. Later on, in 2010, when it came time for the time-honored tradition of transmitting a “wake-up call” song to the sleeping astronauts aboard the International Space Station, some misbehaving soul snuck this in:
The rest of us can only hope to someday wake up and find ourselves in such a situation.
Swanson, however, had a different, special part to play. After almost ten years of waiting since his induction into the astronaut corps, he was selected and began training for flight STS-117. Its mission: Fly space shuttle Atlantis to the ISS to deliver structural trusses and solar panels to expand the station’s power capacity and exchange its crew. Swanson, however, hatched a mission plan of his own.
Aboard the ISS, the computers have a small portion of their hard drives allocated to storing streamed movies and films that are beamed up by NASA for entertainment on breaks. In fact, JJ Abrams and NASA arranged for the 2009 reboot of Star Trek to debut on the station alongside the world premiere. A similar broadcast was set up for Marvel’s Avengers. These films rotate out and only stay on for about 10 days, while they only have a limited library up there to stay on a space station where space and mass is carefully catalogued and managed. Conspiring with some ground crew, Swanson arranged for a complete collection of the Firefly and Serenity DVDs to be snuck in to the flight’s payload manifest to leave on the station and convert future astronauts and crew…in space. I defy you to imagine anything that could possibly be geekier.
You can read the whole story here, but he got away with it, and the internet was treated to this:
…Ta me de, that never gets old for me. The mission was a success, and Swanson went on to serve on a second mission two years later aboard Discovery and to become, to our knowledge, the only astronaut biography entry on Wikipedia with a section devoted to Firefly and Serenity.
Recently, his years of patiently training in space station operations while waiting for his first flight have paid off, and he was selected for Expedition 39 to crew the International Space Station, where he has conducted all manner of awesome science experiments recently brought up by the previous Dragon resupply, such as a new way of growing food crops in space.
Swanson also made waves recently when he posted the first Instagram “selfie” from space, for which occasion he opted to wear a Firefly shirt (Represent). Earlier this past week, as part of the exchange of crews from Expedition 39 to 40, Commander Wakata of Japan stepped down and passed the baton to Swanson–one small step for a man, one giant leap for Browncoats everywhere. Sources are unclear as to whether he immediately demanded that the crew begin referring to him as “Cap’n.”
Dr. Swanson’s story serves as an important lesson of perserverance in the face of adversity and working hard even though you have no reason to believe it’ll make any difference–in short, what it truly means to be a Browncoat. We’re known for standing up for and believing in foolish and unpopular things. The exploration and colonization of deep space hasn’t been popular since the ’60s, and is even less liked than ever before in the face of naysayers who claim “the money is better spent elsewhere.” If you really think about it, space is the perfect Browncoat cause. Dr. Swanson no doubt had to face both opposition and long odds, but he and many other brave men and women serve as an example every day to keep flyin’, and to never let anyone take the sky from you, your very right to dream.
“We are learning just how to explore, another aspect of exploring. For me, that is what it is all about, exploration. I believe it is a part of human nature to explore.
We have done it ever since, well, just look at history. Everybody was going off exploring and they had a lot more risk, I think, crossing the ocean the first time. That was a lot of risk. Think of the Vikings, the boats they went across the ocean in—talk about risk. So everybody has always taken this risk just to go explore, to see what else is out there. Maybe it was for science. Maybe it was just to get another land to get more resources. Whatever it was during history, they always went off and did things and I think it is still the same idea for us.
We are going off now, trying to get science better, trying to find a place that we could go to, maybe to get resources off the moon. We could go explore Mars. All these kind of ideas are things I think as human nature we just have to do and so the risk for that to me is not that great for that reward.”
—Dr. Steven “Swanny” Swanson