Dan Swanson cuts across Carnegie Mellon’s Morewood parking lot on his way to visit his fiancée, Karen Sieber, at Mudge House residence hall. He can’t help but notice the looming moon. As he gazes upward, something overcomes him. “That was the night I decided that I was going to build a spacecraft and go to the moon,” he recalls.
Fast forward. The two engineering students marry shortly after graduating in 1985 and move to New Jersey so that Dan can pursue his master’s degree in aerospace engineering at Princeton. He gets a job locally with GE Astro Space, now Lockheed Martin, working on satellite control systems. In the mid-’90s, the Swansons relocate to California and Dan continues to work with satellites, including the NASA Lunar Prospector, which maps the surface of the moon. In the summer of 1999, he helps deliberately crash the satellite into a lunar crater at the completion of the mission.
And that’s how the young man who stared into the night sky from the Morewood parking lot made it to the moon. Here’s how he made it into Karen’s heart.
They both attended the same suburban Pittsburgh high school but never met until their junior year, when the Society of Women Engineers hosted an informational conference on Carnegie Mellon’s campus for high school students interested in pursuing engineering.
“We had mutual friends, some of whom invited her to come along, and some of whom invited me to come along,” Dan recalls. “We each said no a couple of times before we each individually decided to come.”
When the two high schoolers met on campus at the conference that day, “we just sort of clicked,” remembers Karen.
A year and a half after they met, when it came time to make college decisions, Karen chose to enroll at Carnegie Mellon while Dan went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. When the couple got engaged mid-way through their freshman year, they both applied to transfer to the other’s school to end the long-distance nature of their relationship. They both wound up being accepted at both schools! In the end, the family connection to Pittsburgh won out, and Dan joined Karen at Carnegie Mellon for his sophomore year.
Both Swansons credit their time on campus for shaping who they became both personally and professionally. “I got a really deep grounding in the principles of engineering,” says Dan. “It wasn’t just problem solving; it was understanding the reasons why problems are solved the way they are.”
“What I really got from Carnegie Mellon was confidence,” reflects Karen. Years later, when she made the decision to stay home and homeschool their two children, she didn’t suffer any of the insecurities someone without a background in education might feel. Karen simply wanted her children to get more out of high school than she did. “It seemed like high school was just about getting things done and turning things in, but I wasn’t that passionate about what I was learning,” she recalls, adding that she didn’t feel passionate about learning until her time at Carnegie Mellon. “I wanted to instill in my kids the love of learning,” she explains. “I just felt confident that I could do it.”
Given the couple’s history, it’s safe to say that the Pittsburgh campus is a place of significance for them. They give annually to the university and became involved in the Holleran Scholarship Challenge, which provides additional funding to donor gifts in order to create scholarships. They’ve also created the Swanson Space Sciences Fund, which provides monetary support for skyward-looking projects and competitions like the ongoing Google Lunar X competition, which challenges teams to land a robot on the moon.
Now they are involved with CMU’s Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation. The institute, whose formal home will be in the Sherman and Joyce Bowie Scott Hall once completed, was first conceived by President Emeritus Jared L. Cohon several years ago. As one of his last acts as president, he established an institute that focuses on improving energy efficiency and developing new, clean, affordable, and sustainable energy sources.
The institute’s co-director since its 2013 founding, Andrew Gellman, says that soon all of us may be thanking the Scott Institute for creating breakthroughs in areas such as ingestible batteries to power medical devices, or in ionic capacitor materials that enable highly efficient water desalination to produce fresh water.
The institute’s ambitious agenda has captured the attention of the Swansons, “particularly the energy technology lab,” says Dan.
Knowing that his father, John, an engineer and philanthropist himself, would be interested in the problems tackled by the Scott Institute, Dan mentioned to him the idea of providing support. The family decided to team up to contribute $1 million for the construction of what will be known as The Daniel and Karen Swanson Energy Technology Laboratory. It will include a wet lab—a facility for “benchtop” experiments using biological materials—and a separate space for computational work and modeling.
Last December, Dan and Karen toured the construction site. Afterwards, they requested copies of research papers Gellman had mentioned during a follow-up conversation. “They must have read them,” says Gellman, a CMU professor of chemical engineering, “because they had thoughtful follow-up questions!”
Soon, Karen and Dan will walk the Carnegie Mellon campus and think fondly about not just the history they share there, but also the future they’re making for generations of students to come.