HOUSTON - After years of training and preparation, a Colorado native is now just days away from a flight to the International Space Station.
The journey will take Coloradan Steve Swanson into the heavens for a third visit to Earth's only permanent, orbiting outpost -- but he will face unique new challenges on this trip.
Swanson and two Russian cosmonauts are scheduled to launch aboard Soyuz TMA-12M on March 25. He will be the most experienced astronaut on board, but it will be his first flight aboard the cramped Russian spacecraft. The astronaut's two previous flights were aboard NASA Space Shuttles, before that program was retired.
"Each time I was up there with my shuttle flights, it was only two weeks long and I just wanted to stay," he said.
To prepare for the upcoming six-month expedition, Swanson has spent years in training. Although he and his fellow cosmonauts will spend just a few days aboard the Soyuz, Swanson spent months traveling between the United States and Russia to train for the trip.
"It's like starting a roller coaster ride," said Swanson describing the launch he has trained for.
After the Soyuz carries the crew to the ISS, hundreds of miles above the Earth, Swanson will assume the role of flight engineer for Expedition 39. Every crew visiting the station overlaps and when Expedition 39's members depart a few weeks later, Swanson will become the commander of Expedition 40.
- This trip begins long before takeoff -
"I just always loved to explore," the graduate of Steamboat Springs High School said.
"I'd just go hike around, you know, the areas where we were camping, and I used to love doing that, I think that's kind of the same idea, I love to explore," he added.
Swanson also graduated from the University of Colorado with a bachelor of science in engineering physics. From there, he completed a master of applied science in computer systems at Florida Atlantic University and then a doctorate in computer science from Texas A&M.
He worked as software engineer before joining the astronaut corps.
Swanson's first space flight was aboard STS-117 in June 2007. He flew again aboard the shuttle on STS-119 in March 2009. Both missions dealt with the construction of the station on which Swanson will soon be living.
To prepare for life aboard the station, Swanson has spent time inside an earthbound mockup of the station. Although the station is big enough to cover a football field from endzone to endzone, living aboard is akin to staying inside a cramped five-bedroom home that you cannot leave.
With a laugh, Swanson says he does not get claustrophobic inside the small space.
Other training included hours upon hours of time in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a 40-foot deep pool. Astronauts donned space suits and practiced space walks on the exterior of the space station using full-size models under the water, which simulates weightlessness.
"You're underwater for 6 to 7 hours. It's physically demanding the whole time," said Swanson.
It is tough work, but unbelievably important.
"You're holding on to a handrail and you look down and 250 miles below you is earth," he said, drawing on the experience of his previous spacewalks outside the ISS.
- Life in microgravity -
In addition to the new pressure of commanding the station, Swanson will live in space for longer than he ever has. Both of his previous flights lasted less than two weeks.
Everything in space is different.
Sleeping for example, occurs in small cubbyholes with astronauts and cosmonauts floating inside sleeping bags. The bathrooms are inside another small closet equipped with a vacuum hose.
It sounds cramped, but Swanson says, "It's the best playground you could ever get."
While he sleeps and works, Swanson's flying home will pass through about fifteen sunrises and sunsets each 24-hour period.
"For two weeks, you can kind of deal with anything and make it through anything -- the food and all the other issues that go along with that -- but if you live there for six months, you're really going to have to adapt and become comfortable in that environment," Swanson said.
He will be required to exercise each day, to fight the physical changes that occur during long term space flight. Even the strongest astronauts tend to return from trips to the station with reduced bone density and muscle mass.
Because of the length of this once-in-a-lifetime trip, Swanson will also miss holidays and other occasions on the ground. The one that weighs heaviest on his mind is an important family milestone.
"The big thing is, my youngest is going to graduate high school and go off to college and I'm going to miss that whole aspect," said Swanson.
Prior to his departure to the space station, Swanson and the Russian cosmonauts will be in quarantine at Star City in Russia. The point of the separation is to prevent the scientists from getting sick in space.
Despite the bittersweet aspect of this trip, this expedition will bring a feeling of accomplishment for Swanson. He will soon be able to live aboard the space-age structure he helped build.