Steve Swanson is about to become the second Texas A&M graduate to hold the title of commander of the International Space Station after launching aboard the Soyuz spacecraft Tuesday from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
One former NASA classmate said he knows Swanson is more than qualified to lead his crew when the time comes.
"He was always positive and kept things light," fellow astronaut Mike Foreman said minutes before the 4:17 p.m. launch. "He was also one of the smarter guys in the class. Swanny's a good guy."
Swanson joined two Russian cosmonauts, Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev, on Tuesday's trip to the ISS, where they will meet astronauts from the U.S., Japan and Russia. The six-person team will work together until May, when the three onboard astronauts will return to earth. At that point, Swanson will become commander of the space station until the mission ends in September.
This is Swanson's third trip into space. While a third trip is an important milestone for Swanson, Foreman said receiving the mission commander title is "the epitome of becoming an astronaut."
Foreman, 56, and Swanson, 53, were two of 24 American cadets who made it into the astronaut corps in 1998. Foreman was tapped while serving as a captain in the U.S. Navy in Maryland, while Swanson was busy receiving a Ph.D. in computer science from Texas A&M.
Foreman recalled that Swanson had a way of breaking down the information when fellow trainees were struggling to comprehend their lessons.
Their training included many simulations and exercises with the shuttle and space station, as well as basic courses in geology and other disciplines, Foreman said.
Swanson said in a recent interview that training for a space shuttle mission is not as complex as training for the unknown missions aboard the ISS.
"You never know what's going to break while you're up there ... On the International Space Station, you have to be a jack of all trades," Swanson said in a March 7 interview with NASA-TV.
Foreman never flew on a space mission with Swanson -- their missions staggered each other, with Swanson embarking first on STS 117 on June 8, 2007. Swanson followed up that mission with another in March 2009.
Swanson's role as mission commander will be to oversee his crew while aboard the ISS, Foreman said.
For many astronauts, launch days are particularly special even if you're not the one heading into the cosmos.
"It's a culmination of all those years of training. It's almost like waiting for Christmas," he said.
Foreman said he'd crossed paths with Swanson now and again at the NASA gym. Swanson had been training for the last two years for this mission. Foreman said that his friend seemed anxious to get on the rocket.
"He was probably ready to go about a year ago," Foreman said.
The expedition will include several hundred experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science, according to NASA. Officials anticipate Swanson, Skvortsov and Artemyev to return to Earth sometime in September, though an official date has not been set.
Mike Fossum, who was the first Aggie on the International Space Station, was in Kazakhstan for Tuesday's launch.
He posted a photo of the shuttle moments after launching with the caption "what a great view!!!"