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For release: 06/17/04
Release #: 04-164  

A love of the Russian language leads to an out-of-this-world career for David Swafford


When others in college were reading English literature, David Swafford was mastering another language that would help him train astronauts and cosmonauts to live and work together in space. Today, Swafford is not only fluent in Russian, but uses his language skills in his work in space exploration.

Photo: Swafford (NASA/MSFC)

When others in his college classes were reading English literature, David Swafford was mastering another language that would help him train astronauts and cosmonauts to live and work together in space. Today, Swafford is not only fluent in Russian, but also has been able to use his language skills in his work in space exploration.

At NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Swafford is an operations controller supporting the International Space Station - the world's orbiting research laboratory being built by 16 nations including the United States and Russia. He is employed by NASA contractor Teledyne Brown Engineering, Inc. of Huntsville.

In his position at NASA's Payload Operations Center, the science command post for the Space Station at the Marshall Center, Swafford is responsible for ensuring the crewmembers onboard the Station - one Russian, one American - has all of the tools, equipment and support they need to perform science research experiments efficiently and safely.

While experiments are being conducted on the orbiting laboratory 240 miles above Earth, Swafford coordinates real-time flight control activities -- those that are happening at the moment - for the ground support team. This includes analyzing Station systems resources, monitoring the crew as they execute science experiment procedures and processing messages for the crew in orbit - sometimes even getting the chance to talk with them. Crew members and the payload operations director depend on him to make sure everything is ready to operate.

Although transmission lines, called loops, are translated into English from the Russian Mission Control Center, Swafford usually listens to the Russian-language conversations that take place between the crew and ground controllers in Moscow.

"The payload operations director and other cadre members sometimes ask me to explain the Russian acronyms and procedures," Swafford said. "It challenges me to be on my toes at all times."

Growing up in New Market, the Buckhorn High School graduate was exposed to the space program at a young age with the Marshall Center just down the road. "I remember visiting the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, watching the Apollo lunar missions, and thinking: They built some of that right here in my hometown," said Swafford.

Swafford decided to pursue his interest in engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, graduating in 1993 with a bachelor's in chemical engineering. At UAH, he also became interested in Russian and took enough courses for a minor in the language. In 1995, he traveled to the former Soviet republic of Ukraine on a church trip to take donated medical supplies to a hospital. That's where his knowledge of the Russian language really paid off. Moments after landing at the Kiev airport, he met his future wife, Oksana, a teacher and interpreter whom he married two years later.

In 1996, Swafford's engineering and Russian language skills landed him a position at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston in the Shuttle-Mir program - which involved nine Space Shuttle dockings with the Russian space station. As a hardware engineer, Swafford worked on equipment used to train astronauts and cosmonauts performing U.S. experiments on Mir. For the International Space Station, Swafford taught courses and actually helped to train astronauts, cosmonauts and flight controllers.

Since 1999 when he returned to Huntsville to work at the Marshall Center, Swafford has supported the International Space Station payload operations, following what the Station residents do every day to conduct onboard experiments.

"The knowledge we gain during the months each crew is aboard the Station is fascinating, and I'm proud to be a part of that," said Swafford. "We are supporting research that will contribute to the Vision for Space Exploration of building a permanent base on the Moon and missions to Mars and beyond."

When he's not helping astronauts perform experiments in space, you'll usually find Swafford spending time with his wife and son, reading, participating in martial arts or indulging in his personal library of Russian films. He recently finished graduate school, and that is allowing him more time lately to engage in these leisure activities. Swafford received his master's in industrial and systems engineering from UAH in May, and he is considering returning to the school to begin working on his PhD next year.

Given the choice between office work and flight control duties, Swafford says he chooses to work in "real-time" space flight operations - because he always likes to be part of the action.

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Steve Roy
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(256) 544-0034

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