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Steven L. Smith: From father to son

A former Stanford student-athlete who became an astronaut offers advice to his son, a Stanford freshman runner

By Steven L. Smith as told to Brian Burnsed

NASA Associate Director for the International Space Station and former astronaut Steve Smith has been to space four times and embarked upon seven grueling spacewalks. He is adamant that the time he spent balancing college water polo with his studies at Stanford University provided an invaluable foundation for his career. Smith graduated from Stanford in 1981 with an electrical engineering degree, a pair of NCAA national championships and an All-American designation. His son, Brian, in September began his time at Stanford, where he will compete in the 800 meters for the school’s track and field team. What’s in store for Brian over the next four years? His father reflects: 

Biography

Steven L. Smith
Associate director for NASA / former astronaut

Hometown: San Jose, California

Current city: San Jose, California

School: Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from Stanford University, 1981; Master of Science in electrical engineering from Stanford University, 1982; Master of Business Administration from Stanford University, 1987 

Sport: Water polo

Fun fact: Though his days in space are behind him, Smith still enjoys adventures off of solid ground: He loves flying small planes and is an avid scuba diver.

Brian,

As you embark on your college journey, I want to give you my thoughts on life and what your opportunities are: Where you go from here is totally up to you. If you aspire to be a doctor – which you have said is your goal – I can tell you that the hard work you put in during your studies and your grueling track workouts over the next four years will provide a quiver of life skills and experiences that will help you follow your dream path. The work you will put in on the track and in your academics isn’t about accolades or adding impressive accomplishments to your medical school application; it’s about building tangible skills.

By competing in college sports at a national level, you will learn and fine-tune many of life’s important skills: the ability to make decisions quickly under pressure; how to communicate well when under pressure in a dynamic situation; how to work as a member of a team, both as a follower and as a leader; how to balance huge workloads and time constraints, and so on. All of the skills that sports taught me helped get me selected to be an astronaut. I was competing against thousands of incredible people who had done amazing things – flying jets and inventing cutting-edge medical devices and scientific processes. I always thought, “What set me apart?” It was my elite-level athletic experience and the skills it taught me. The skill set was perfect for the intense moments in an astronaut’s work.

I was in two NCAA championship games. In these pressure-filled moments, we had to react quickly and had limited time to adapt. Those skills are directly transferable to flying jet airplanes, doing spacewalks and working on a multibillion-dollar piece of equipment like the Hubble Space Telescope. These were pressure-filled situations in which I didn’t really have much time to think – but sports had taught me how to handle the pressure. Through excellent teamwork and communication, we did the right things.

Take advantage of being in the university setting. Try different things. Don’t spend all of your time studying. Find balance in your life. Institutions like Stanford have an infrastructure that will help you find that balance. You are surrounded by people who also have ambitious academic and nonacademic interests. After only a few months at school, I can already tell that you have been inspired by the people around you, and I think you are already seeing the positive results of the hard work your college professors and coaches are demanding. 

When I flew in space and looked back on Earth, an overwhelming feeling washed over me.  Earth appeared as a small blue marble, a tiny island, in the black ocean of space. This view makes the astronauts see Earth as one global community without borders, in which we as Earth’s citizens should be more tolerant, in which there should be no wars and in which there should be no animosity between different cultures and religions. More than anything, Brian, I hope you can contribute to peace in this world and, through any endeavor that lies ahead, experience that same feeling.

– Dad

(Photos:  NASA; Stanford University Athletics; Steven L. Smith)

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