Skip to main content

Space Sports: A Conversation with NASA Astronaut Dr. Steve Swanson

Humans have always been interested in exploring outer space. And to achieve the goal of space travel, it takes top scientists, engineers, and even athletes. One of those people is Dr. Steve Swanson.

Dr. Swanson turned his love for team sports, fitness, computers, and engineering into a career as a NASA astronaut. He served as a systems and flight engineer and mission specialist on the Space Shuttle and has spent 6 months on the International Space Station (ISS). He has travelled more than 83 million miles in orbit and spent more than 195 days in space, including 27 hours of spacewalks to construct and repair parts of the space station. He even sent the first Instagram photo from space! (That’s it at the top of the page.)

Today, Dr. Swanson also works with the Uniphi Space Agency to raise awareness about astronauts, the work they do, and support their continued contributions to the world. During a recently completed Kickstarter campaign, #WeBelieveInAstronauts, Dr. Swanson talked with SI Kids about his life as an astronaut, how he stays fit in space, the similarities between working in space and a career as a pro athlete, and advice for kids who want to blast off one day.

Your bio says that you are an avid runner and ultra marathoner. How do you best define yourself: astronaut, educator, or would you consider yourself a multi-sport athlete?

I like all of those things. When I am not doing my astronaut job I am mostly performing all kinds of exercise and athletic activities like basketball, running, hiking, lacrosse, skiing, and mountain biking. This is what I spend most of my free time doing.

What sports did you participate in as a kid and during school and college?

I played basketball and football in High School and lacrosse in college.

Is there any sport that has most influenced your career?

I don’t think that there was one sport that most influenced it. I think it was the team sports that helped me learn to be a good team member and work on a team. This is something that we do at NASA all the time. That aspect of sports is fantastic.

You have made many space flights and spent 6 months on the International Space Station. Did you participate in any athletic activities in space?

Yes. We had to work out on a regular basis, two hours every day. An hour of our workout was cardio running on a treadmill or riding an exercise bike. For the second hour we did strength training on a machine that simulated lifting weights. I also participated in a 24-hour, 200-mile relay race from Fort Carson, Colorado, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I was part of a six person team. There were five runners on the ground and I was in space. There were a total of 36 legs in the relay race, so each runner ran six each. We would rotate through. Each runner would run their leg of the race. When it was my turn, the team communicated through Mission Control so I would know how far my leg of the relay was. It was really fun.

You have more than 27 hours on space walks. What is that experience like? And what did you do to prepare for it?

Spacewalks are a fun thing to do, but they are hard. You have to train and prepare for each spacewalk just like a sporting event. Spacewalks are very physically demanding. We practice spacewalks just like a sport. NASA has a big pool where we can go under the water in our spacesuits and practice all the things we need to do. You have to be mentally ready and practiced for the spacewalk just like you would be for a game.   

Generally, how do you stay fit in space? How does living in zero gravity make it harder to exercise or keep your body in shape?

If you didn’t work out in space your muscles would start to atrophy or get weak. If you don’t work out you will lose bone density, which means that they would get brittle. You have to stop that from happening. The way we do that is with exercise. We have a treadmill that has a harness that holds you down with bungee cords. The astronauts can adjust the speed of the treadmill and the tension of the bungee cords to hold you down. The faster the treadmill and tighter the tension, the harder the workout. We also have an exercise bike in space, though it doesn’t have a seat or handlebars. It is a frame system, a box with pedals on it. An astronaut can adjust how hard you have to pedal to increase the workout. There is also a lifting device, which we call a resisted exercise device. An astronaut can do many different types of weightlifting exercises on this machine. When astronauts come back, they can resume normal activities because they are not weak and brittle from their time in space because of the exercise. 

Besides staying fit and training, what were your most important jobs in space?

The science is the main job of the astronaut. There are over 270 experiments going on at once on the International Space Station. The astronaut is responsible to work with a large team on the ground to keep those experiments going. We work together to achieve success with the experiments as well as keep the space station running.

Dr. Swanson and his fellow ISS crewmembers kick off the 2014 World Cup from the space station!

How is being an astronaut similar or different, in terms of physical and mental preparation, to being a professional athlete? Would you compare “astronaut” or space travel to any sports?

There are many similarities with professional sports. Astronauts prepare and train in the same way professional athletes do. Many professional athletes have to study playbooks, which we have to do. Astronauts probably do more studying than working out while professional athletes probably do more physical training than studying. Both careers have the same requirements and ideas on how to perform at your best. Both practice to make sure that they know exactly what they have to do. Both are essentially the same as you train to do the best you can or create an environment where you can accomplish something like winning a game.

If you could explore anywhere or anything in the universe as an astronaut, where would go?

I would go to Mars. That would be fantastic! I think the moon is a close second. But if I could go anywhere, I would go to Mars.

What do you think is the future of manned space travel?

I think we will be going to Mars as our next major goal. To get there we will have to put in a lot of work. I’m thinking we will have some stepping stones and proving grounds which could include going back to the moon. We may need to set up a moon base to develop the best equipment and procedures to move forward to Mars.

What are the most important skills that kids need if they want to be an astronaut?

Be a good team member, which is really important. You have to do well in school. You also have to be athletic. You have to have a combination of skills. You have to be a good person and be in good shape. You have to be able to do things with your body but also do things with your mind.

Visit the Uniphi Space Agency website to learn more about Dr. Steve Swanson!

Photos: NASA

dr. steve swanson nasa astronaut space sports
dr. steve swanson nasa astronaut space sports
dr. steve swanson nasa astronaut space sports
dr. steve swanson nasa astronaut space sports