They've walked in space, piloted the Shuttle and upgraded the Hubble. Still thirsting for adventure, Stanford-trained astronauts are looking to the next challenge: Constructing the most expensive object ever built.
By Lisa Sonne
As a 30-year-old physician, Scott Parazynski joined a team of other doctors organizing a climb of Mount Everest. But two months into the planning, he got a call from NASA inviting him to become an astronaut.
Everest would have to wait.
Five years later, Parazynski was on the verge of making an even more spectacular climb -- a spacewalk along the damaged outer hull of the Mir space station as it orbited 245 miles above Earth with the shuttle Atlantis in tow.
Parazynski, '83, MD '89, and Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Titov had five hours of work to do in the vastness of that afternoon last October. Besides retrieving four scientific experiments from the exterior of the Mir, they planned to leave behind a crucial piece of equipment that another crew would use to patch a hole in the geriatric Russian space station.
Breathing pure oxygen from a canister in his space suit, Parazynski left the shuttle's airlock first. He took a moment to marvel at the unobstructed view -- "stars, trillions and trillions of them" -- before attaching a retractable safety cable to his suit and another to Titov, who was waiting in the open airlock.
But moments later, as he floated weightless just outside Atlantis's cargo bay, Parazynski noticed something wrong. Rather than
retracting as he came closer, the cable tethering him to the ship was flopping like a loose clothesline in slow motion. He froze, taking in the implications: The slack in the tether had the potential to catch on sensitive equipment and entangle both men. The glitch could scuttle the spacewalk and delay the repairs on Mir.
Houston, we have a problem.
Parazynski had come too far to give up the ultimate astronaut experience easily. "The only acceptable solution for me was to get the spacewalk accomplished," he recalls now. "So my mind was racing with lots of options." Like some orbital handyman, he began tinkering with the tether. First he tapped hard on the its retraction mechanism to free it. No go. He tried pulling out extra cable. Still the coil refused to retract.
Then it hit him: Months ago in Houston, he and Titov had briefly practiced an emergency protocol developed by the Russians. Instead of one 55-foot cable, you climb with a few shorter cables, floating from one handhold to the next and attaching a new cable every few yards, like a mountaineer. Like a mountaineer. Why not give it a try?
Speaking in the mixture of Russian and English that he and Titov favored, Parazynski ran the idea by the Russian and then proposed it to Mission Control, which was monitoring the flight from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. For two minutes, Parazynski floated, waiting.
Then word crackled through his headset: "You have a go for Russian tether ops." The spacewalk was back on. Five hours later, the astronaut and the cosmonaut had accomplished their mission in full.
Parazynski regrets missing the Everest trip in 1992. But he still hopes to climb the peak one day. "The mountain will always be there," he says. "I just had a better offer."
It's an offer that 17 Stanford alums have grabbed since the early days of human space flight, racking up some dramatic statistics: They have collectively orbited the earth 5,831 times and traveled more than 151 million miles in space -- enough to get to the sun and halfway home again.
Their experiences track NASA's trajectory over the past three decades -- from Owen Garriot, MS '57, PhD '60, a former Stanford engineering professor who became an astronaut in 1965 and went on to become a member of the second Skylab mission in 1973, to Sally Ride, '73, MS '75, PhD '78, who was the first American woman in space in 1983, to Edward "Mike" Fincke, MS '90, selected by NASA in 1996 and now a potential member of future international space station crews.
Stanford's presence in space has never been as strong as it is today. Last year alone, the Farm's nine active astronaut alums helped upgrade the Hubble space telescope, tested robotic arms for the planned space station, took photos of comet Hale-Bopp from space and piloted the Atlantis shuttle to the Mir space station.
Almost anywhere you turn in NASA's human space program, Stanford graduates are engaged in that peculiar combination of duties that makes being an astronaut "the best job in the universe," according to Parazynski. In large part, astronauts serve as brainy, highly trained muscle -- cosmic lab techs, galactic mechanics, astral cabbies armed with PhDs. They're also called upon to be human lab rats in medical experiments and psychological observations. And while it may not show up on any NASA job descriptions, all the astronauts play the role of "explorer," venturing into the unknown.
Some of the Stanford astronauts' most significant achievements have come on high-altitude repair missions. One occurred in February 1997, when a shuttle crew that included Steve Smith, '81, MS '82, MBA '87, made a Hubble house call.
The seven-member crew of Discovery rendezvoused with the telescope 426 miles above the earth. From within the safety of the shuttle, the astronauts used a robotic arm to snatch the $3 billion bus-sized telescope and lock it temporarily in the shuttle's open payload bay.
Their task: Swap two of the telescope's optical instruments with new and more sophisticated devices (the Hubble had already been repaired in a daring 1991 mission to correct improperly ground lenses). Over the course of three spacewalks spanning more than 19 hours, Smith and partner Mark Lee worked in the open bay removing the Hubble's two original spectrographs -- instruments that separate light into its constituent colors -- and replacing them with something called the space telescope imaging spectrograph (STIS) and the near-infrared camera and multi-object spectrometer (known, like almost everything else in NASA, by an acronym: NICMOS).
Cocooned in a bulky spacesuit and strapped to the end of the shuttle's robot arm, Smith yanked the old spectrographs out of their compartments in the tail of the Hubble. On earth, the telephone-booth sized instruments weigh about 700 pounds. In the microgravity of space, Smith could maneuver them like party balloons.
He eased the new instruments into the vacant slots with only inches to spare. "Several times I was holding on really hard, and I had to tell myself to relax," Smith says. " 'You are not going to fall. OK, just relax. You are not going to kick the Hubble.' "
The mission made possible another leap in astronomy. The new instruments can "see" light beyond the visible spectrum. Using the NICMOS, scientists can now detect infrared light from objects larger and more distant than any heavenly bodies ever observed before. Light at these lower frequencies can penetrate clouds of dust that obscure light in the visible spectrum.
The results are breathtaking. In October, astronomers from UCLA and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore unveiled a computer-enhanced photograph of the brightest star yet discovered in the Milky Way: The Pistol Star -- 25,000 light-years away -- burns with the brightness of 10 million suns. It's so vast that it would fill the space inside the earth's orbit.
It was Smith's brawn as well as brains that made such observations possible. Indeed, NASA officials who select astronauts say physical coordination, stamina and courage are essential. Smith, who played on Stanford's NCAA championship water polo teams in 1978 and 1980, trained for his Hubble mission by doing more than 125 hours of simulations in the NASA hydrolab, the world's largest swimming pool. Wearing specialized scuba gear that simulates a spacesuit, Smith and his crewmates became "neutrally buoyant" and practiced on a submerged mock-up of the Hubble.
Most of the astronauts, in fact, have excelled in sports. While in medical school, Parazynski tried out for the Olympic luge team. Edward Lu, PhD '89, is a surfer and former wrestler. Sally Ride was ranked nationally as a junior tennis player.
"I think athletics teach you to operate under any physical duress," says Tamara Jernigan, '81, MS '83, who played on Stanford's 1979 volleyball team and is a veteran of four trips to space. "You push yourself hard. So when you're climbing out the overhead or rappelling yourself down the orbiter in this hot suit with no cooling, it's not unlike a lot of things you have done."
Astronauts may be athletic, but they're not dumb jocks. Altogether, Stanford's 17 astronauts hold 13 master's degrees, seven PhDs, three MDs and two MBAs. Four are pilots or flight engineers; the rest are "mission specialists" with expertise in specialties from robotics to payload procedures. When they're not in mission training or aloft, each of the astronauts works on ground assignments in one of six astronaut branches. Two of those branches are currently headed by Stanford alumni. Jeff Wisoff, MS '82, PhD '86, runs the payloads and habitability branch, and Eileen Collins, MS '86, oversees the spacecraft systems branch.
NASA officials chalk up Stanford's outsized presence in the agency's astronaut corps to the University's top-ranked engineering and science programs. The majority of astronauts have engineering or science backgrounds, and NASA looks for applicants who go on to stellar accomplishments once they have their degrees. "People from Stanford tend to do really well once they leave school," says Duane Ross, manager of NASA's astronaut recruiting office. The Stanford name itself doesn't hurt. "I'd get in trouble with the other schools if I said that," Ross says. "But schools with a good reputation will catch people's eye. You can't fight human nature."
In space, shuttle astronauts spend much of their time conducting physics and life-science experiments. But they are often the subjects of experiments themselves -- testing the effects of microgravity in space walks. The highly publicized flight of Sen. John Glenn in October will examine the effects of space travel on aging. But experiments on human survival in this alien environment have been under way since Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962.
Without the work imposed by gravity, the space traveler's heart begins to weaken. On long-duration flights, bone density and muscle strength can decrease drastically as movement becomes almost effortless. Doctors aren't sure if the calcium loss can be reversed. Surprisingly, the only exercise equipment fully developed to fight the health risks were high-tech stationary bicycles. But those mainly protect the heart and have relatively minor effect on strength loss and bone-density deterioration.
With that in mind, Parazynski -- whose medical training included research on fluid shifts that occur during space flight -- began developing exercise equipment that would maintain strength and minimize bone weakening on long flights. Working at the NASA/Ames Research Center in Mountain View, he co-invented a compact piece of equipment -- the interlimb resistance device -- that eventually got a workout on a shuttle flight in 1994. Parazynski and Ellen Ochoa, MS '81, PhD '89 were on board to test the machine, which straps onto the walls of the crew's cabin and relies on the principle of the exerciser pitting one set of muscles against another.
The results have been encouraging. "You could generate tremendous amounts of resistance with much greater intensity than is possible on earth," Parazynski says, sounding a little like a late-night infomercial from space. "You can get the same amount of exercise in much shorter time."
NASA is also concerned with the overall psychological health of crews, especially since astronauts of many nationalities will be flying together in the new space station. In eight trips to Mir and in training trips to Russia's once-secret Star City space center, the Americans are working out the kinks of cooperation -- practicing each other's language, studying each other's techniques and procedures. What they learn will be put to use on the space station, already under construction on the ground in assembly plants around the world.
The troubles aboard Mir have already provided valuable rehearsals for the international space station. The 11-year-old Mir had a rough time last year. A supply ship crashed into one of its modules, causing a dangerous and nearly fatal loss of pressure. There was a fire on board. The computers kept crashing. "We need to establish an understanding of how to do operations in space and how to fix things in space," says Wisoff, who traveled to Mir aboard the shuttle Atlantis in January 1997. "We can take lessons learned from the Mir and go back and evaluate the [international space] station in light of all these different occurrences."
The cross-cultural exchange has had its lighter moments, too. Wisoff still enjoys the memory of his crew's arrival at Mir. They were immediately invited to a traditional Russian space repast. "The shuttle uses dehydrated food, but they have some limited refrigeration, and they'd just had a delivery of fresh food," Wisoff says. "So they had a large salami and cheese, and they started cutting it up and giving it to us. It was like being in a space delicatessen."
In June, Russian rockets will begin ferrying chunks of the international space station into orbit. When construction is finished in 2003, the 400-ton station will be big enough to cover 14 tennis courts and will be stocked with experiments and personnel from 15 different countries. With a price tag of $27 billion, it will be the most expensive object ever built.
Stanford astronauts are playing important roles in this massive project. Jernigan is overseeing astronaut crew involvement with the station. Susan Helms, MS '85, has been named to one of the first space station teams -- the only woman so far to be picked for one of the six-month voyages. Wisoff is slated to fly on a space station construction mission next January.
NASA officials tout the space station's potential for long-duration scientific work -- the kind of experiments in materials science, biology and manufacturing that can't be done as well on shorter shuttle flights or in the confines of a station as small and antiquated as Mir. For example, preliminary experiments growing protein crystals in microgravity produced crystals that were more perfectly formed than those grown on earth. The space crystals are easier to probe with X-ray imaging devices, and the resulting analysis promises to open the way to drugs that could treat diabetes and other diseases.
The space station will also give scientists a much better chance to study human adaptation to microgravity. The station will have a special facility for weighing people (no simple trick in space), measuring muscle strength and analyzing blood and exhaled gases.
Still, the scientific rationale for the space station has been questioned by some independent observers. The National Research Council's space studies board has even said that the likely scientific returns don't justify the station's enormous cost.
But in the astronauts' view, the massive project holds the potential for technological and scientific returns not even yet imagined. And perhaps as important, the space station is the best opportunity so far to open the door to further exploration of the solar system and the universe. "These trips on the shuttle have effectively been camping trips, but if you ever plan to visit other planets, that's not enough," Helms says. "You have to have a much better understanding of how humans adapt and live and work in a space environment for long durations. And that's really what the space station is all about."
Which brings us to the heart of the astronaut experience: The adventure of exploring, the drive to push the limits of human experienceand knowledge. It's a mission that goes to the very core of NASA. It's the reason astronauts now dream of walking on the surface of Mars. And it's the motivation many astronauts unabashedly cite when describing why they want to go into space. "One of the hallmarks of human evolution is the accumulation of knowledge," says Wisoff, a veteran of three shuttle flights. "We pursue that. It's something that humans do."
Why? As Scott Parazynski might say: because it's there.
Lisa Sonne, '78, MA '85, is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City and Los Angeles.
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