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Catching Up with... Astronaut Steve Smith
Courtesy: Stanford Athletics  
Release: 12/20/2010

Dec. 20, 2010

Former Stanford swimming and water polo All-American Steve Smith, following a national title in water polo in 1980 went to work for IBM and eventually NASA. He is one of just a handful of people who have ventured into space--something he has done four times, logging 49 hours and 25 minutes space walking. His spacewalking ranks in the top-five in world history. His No. 8 water polo cap also went into space, returning earth-side and given to former Stanford coach Dante Dettamanti. caught up with Smith, who is now living in Amsterdam.

1. Tell us about your family, where you are living and how long you have been there.

STEVE: I married Peggy Brannigan, also a Stanford graduate with an MBA  in 1987.   We were supposed to be married at Stanford Chapel on 10/22/89 but the big earthquake hit just a few days before hand and the chapel was closed for a few years. We found another Palo Alto church. The day of our wedding, the 49ers played at Stanford on 10/22 (Candlestick Park was still closed) and the game ended just as our wedding did. It took us 90 minutes to get to our reception in Los Altos. I have two children, a daughter Shannon, a high school senior who plays volleyball and basketball and a son, Brian, an eighth grader who plays basketball and runs track.
2. You were a South Bay native, growing up in San Jose and received three degrees from Stanford. What drew you to Stanford to begin and what was one of your fondest memories from your college days?

smith swimmingSTEVE: I came to Stanford of course because of their academic and athletic reputation. I wanted to be an engineer/pilot/astronaut so the School of Engineering was a big draw.   The icing on the cake was that Stanford won the NCAA water polo title my senior year in high school.   So Stanford made a lot of sense sports-wise and academically.   It changed my life and Stanford is the cornerstone for my path to space.   My fondest memories are the people and the Stanford culture.    Dorm events, football tailgaters, IM sports teams, Sunday night flicks, student section at basketball games... Stanford was the total package, the total thrilling experience.

3. You were a part of some of the greatest water polo teams in school history, what are your memories from the 1980 championship season?

STEVE:   The 1980 team was memorable for a couple of reasons. First, we had players of all ages. it was not a senior dominated team.  We were all good friends and there were no clicks or sub groups.  We really were a team.  We were serious, but also had a nice balance of fun times, a sense of humor, and regular jokes and pranks.   It was a dream situation.    We ran a lot of stadium stairs - I mention this because the old Stanford Stadium was brutal in height - we would run to the stadium, do several sets of stairs, and run back to the pool. Then we had practice.  We won because we were in fantastic physical shape. It also became trendy for The Band to come to our games if there was a home football game.   In our last victory, a week before the NCAA's, we played Cal. After we beat them, most of the Band jumped into the pool.

4. You balanced being an All-American in swimming and water polo with obviously the rigors of a Stanford degree. What advice would you give to incoming and current student-athletes in regards to making it work?

STEVE: Find a balance. It is a tough load to carry, but it can be done and the BENEFITS of doing well in both will carry you through life, on a great path. In my experience, the time pressures actually resulted in my work being more effective and time efficient.  With the work load, there was no other choice. 

I was part of a very intense and select group of people in the Astronaut Corps; dozens of fighter pilots, doctor's , high powered PhD's, etc.    None had the sports experiences I had though, so that was my card of respect.  That made me different. That brought me respect. 

Steve Young once said something like "I learned all of life's important lessons from sports." When I have spoken at NCAA events or other sporting events I've always pointed out that the skills you learn from sports are so valuable: communication, team work, quick decision making, overcoming defeat or mistakes,  practicing to improve, developing strategies ahead of an event, dealing with stress and pressure, and so on.

smith in space5. What made you want to join NASA in the first place after first working at IBM?

STEVE:  I wanted to be an Astronaut from a very young age.   I loved airplanes as a child - we lived in Japan for awhile and so we flew a lot. It was thrilling to me. Flying then was really unique.   My parents even had me wear a coat and tie for every flight.   Neil Armstrong walked on the moon when I was 10 and it changed my life.  I have many many crayon drawings that I made as a young child of astronauts and rockets.  So the dream was there early.  But it took 25 years until I was sitting inside a rocket ready for lift off. NASA rejected my first three applications (two years in between each). So I had to persevere to be accepted.   That's a lesson I learned from  being an athlete - when you fall down, get up.

6. What did it take to become an astronaut? Do you remember that first moment when they said you'd be on a space shuttle?

STEVE: I left IBM and worked at NASA as a Flight Controller for three years. I did this to learn more about NASA and to have a better chance of being selected.  Flight Controllers are the people who work in Mission Control.   I was called on April 1, 1992 and told I had been selected. My first reaction was that it was a joke since it was April 1.  So I asked the caller a few questions to verify it was the Real Deal. It was. I drove straight home and called my wife and parents.   It was surreal.  After being rejected three times, it was a bit hard to believe I had made it.

7. You have flown into space four times and have walked in space for a total of 49 hours and 25 minutes, ranking in the top-five in NASA history in regards to spacewalk duration. Describe your experiences in space.
 They say it never gets old and the earth is beautiful from above. What was it like? How was takeoff/landing?

smtih with shuttleSTEVE: This could take pages to answer but I'll summarize by saying that riding the rocket to space is the best part.  You go from launch pad to Mach 25 (25 times the speed of sound) in eight minutes. That's eight times the speed of a bullet. We go five miles a second.  We circle the earth every 90 minutes so there is a sunrise or a sunset every 45 minutes.  We see 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every 24 hours. 

The view of Earth is awe inspiring. It looks like a tiny blue marble in a big black ocean. We really are one global community and we do live on an island of limited resources which we need to take care of.  Seeing earth from space changes you.

 Spacewalking is awesome. You are your own spaceship out there. The cable connecting you to the shuttle doesn't carry electricity or oxygen. All of the necessary items you need are inside the space suit. So you are in your own space ship out there.   The suit weight 300 pounds on Earth but in space it is weightless, so you can move around very easily. it is the ultimate adventure experience moving around on the outside of the spaceship.

8. Are there any specific memories you have working with other astronauts

STEVE: I have been to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) twice.   Some of the tasks require us to go INSIDE of the HST.   It requires incredible care to do that - HST is a historical time machine and worth billions of dollars - so we don't want to make any mistakes or bump into anything inside (it is tight) in our bulk space suits.  In order to do these tasks, it takes hundred of hours of practice. The spacewalk itself ends up as a choreographed event, almost like a dance or ballet.   When you are in the middle of this event, it is the same feeling as being in a sporting event that you have practiced for and the event is going well. Being totally in sync with your co-worker, doing the right things, and accomplishing your goals is an incredible feeling. 
9. You're in a small fraternity of people that have been to space. Do you compare experiences back on earth?

STEVE: Yes. The experienced fliers pass on their knowledge to the newer people.  When the experienced people get together, we also share our thoughts on what the Earth looked like, what the launch felt like, things we would do next time, and on and on.



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