With NASA’s last space shuttle mission set to launch July 8, we touched base with former astronaut Scott Parazynski, ’83, MD ’89. Among other things, the Renaissance man is known for his five NASA flights (including seven space walks); for being astronaut John Glenn’s doctor in outer space; for being a little tall (6’ 2”) to squeeze into the tiny Russian SOYUZ capsule; and for becoming the first astronaut to climb Mount Everest. Parazynski, a member of NASA’s Astronaut Corps from 1992 to 2009, today serves as chief technology officer and chief medical officer at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute (TMHRI) in Houston, and as chairman of the board of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Excerpts:
My family just went to Disney World and tried “Mission: Space.” How do these simulation rides compare to the real thing?
Some of them are really outstanding. There’s one at the Kennedy Space Center visitors’ center in Florida that simulates a launch. It puts you on your back and rocks and rolls just like the real thing. All that’s missing is the acceleration—the 3G squeeze in the chest that you feel on a real launch.
When do you predict humans will make it to Mars?
It’s human destiny to explore, and I believe it’s inevitable that humans will set foot on Mars. I just hope that it’s with an American crew. [When] depends on the resolve and whether or not there are international collaborative efforts to share costs and expertise. I believe it could be done within 15 years. More likely it will be 20 to 25.
Why is it important for humans to explore outer space?
If you look historically across our space program, returns on investment have been enormous—the knowledge, the new science, the new technology [NASA developments have led to or refined many things we use in everyday life, including water filters, memory foam and cordless tools] and the inspiration.
What about the role of private industry in space exploration?
There are companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada and Virgin Galactic that are going to be taking not just NASA astronauts but paying customers, scientists and tourists. It will open up the doors for tens of thousands of people to go up into space instead of just the 500 people who have been up in space over the past 50 years. American companies are leading that charge.
In your “spare” time, you’re head of the nonprofit Challenger Center for Space Science Education, founded in 1986 by the families of the astronauts who died in the Challenger mission. Why do kids need to learn about space?
I can’t think of a more important mandate right now [than] for our young people to pursue science and technology and math. Whether you become a lawyer or a soft-science person in your future career—science and math and engineering, the technological languages are important to at least be conversant in. We’re living in an increasingly technological world. What we do [at the Center] for our hands-on simulations is really engage kids in a very realistic expedition. We want kids to see the excitement and importance of science. We’ve seen 4 million kids through our doors. I’d like for us to grow 10-fold in the next five years. We plan to develop virtual missions that suspend disbelief much in the way our traditional simulations do in our centers. [With those,] we can go into a school’s computer laboratory or even to a remove village in Nepal or West Africa—wherever we can get an Internet hookup.
Will any Stanford people be on board the final shuttle that launches July 8?
I hate to admit this, but there’s a Berzerkeley guy onboard—Rex Walheim.
Does flying in outer space feel the same every time?
The launch can be slightly different depending on the vehicle you’re on and also the way the solid rocket boosters are packed. One of my ascents had a lot more vibration. Once you get up in space, there’s the same beautiful sense of floating freely. It never gets old.
Do you feel as though you’re traveling fast?
You go from zero miles an hour to 17,500 miles an hour in just 8 ½ minutes. It’s like an initial lurch off the top of a roller coaster and being squeezed back into your seat. [But] it goes on for 8 ½ minutes. When the main engines cut off, you instantaneously go weightless. And things start to float around you. The sense of speed [once in space] is really only a visual one. It’s just your eyes telling you how fast you’re traveling over the Earth’s surface. You’re seeing yourself fly by at five miles every second. Even if you’re outside on a space walk, you don’t feel the wind rushing by you. You’re just holding on with your fingertips.
How did your wife, your son, Luke (14), and daughter, Jenna (12), feel when you went into space? Were they frightened?
Luke just said he was a little bit scared during the launch itself, but once I was safely in orbit, he was able to relax a bit.
John Glenn was your hero growing up. How was it to be his doctor in space?
It was a huge highlight, the equivalent of playing soccer with Pele or baseball with Babe Ruth.
Editor’s note: Read Stanford’s story about Parazynski’s 1998 Discovery mission.
What were the other highlights of your 17-year NASA career?
The ultimate experience for me was on my last flight, when I had to go out and repair the solar ray. We could have failed to repair it. We might have had to basically go and throw out a billion-dollar piece of space hardware. The other daunting thing is I could have been electrocuted. It was a lot further out than we had ever been—45 minutes from the safety of the airlock. We had a great plan laid out for us by Houston, and it was really kind of exciting. You have to build the repairs with the things you have on board. There really wasn’t any additional time to build a replacement solar ray and install it. If we left it the way it was, they were concerned a floppy solar ray could rip apart and damage the space station or our shuttle.
So, how does the lack of gravity affect life in space?
Things you’re working with, you can’t just set down. You have to Velcro them or tape them to the area you’re working. If you don’t do that, they’ll end up in the cabin air cleaner in a couple days. That’s kind of the lost and found. Meals can be very messy if you’re not careful. Things can end up in people’s eyes and [in] their hair. We don’t take bread because of the crumbs. We take tortillas instead. You can use them like Frisbees and toss them around the cabin. Playing around with food is authorized!
How do you handle everyday activities, such as going to the bathroom, in space?
It’s not a trivial matter to answer the call of nature. The laws of physics apply. You would not want to have free-floating water around the cabin. We have a system that uses a vacuum in space to get rid of waste products. It sort of looks like [your] toilet at home. [But in addition to a seat, it has] a couple of footrests and a couple of leg restraints so you don’t go floating off. There’s a hose to get rid of the liquid waste. [Solid waste] gets pulled into a canister. It basically gets freeze dried and comes back home while the liquid waste is put into a tank and is sent out into space. If the lighting is just right, when we purge the waste-water tanks, it sort of looks like a blizzard out the side of the shuttle . . . strangely beautiful!
Do your kids want to be astronauts?
I don’t think so. Luke is interested in maybe the FBI, and Jenna is really into dancing and creative things. She’s autistic, so we’re not sure what she’ll want to do. But she’s just a very engaging, happy little girl. We’re very proud of her and really excited about how far she’s come.
Quite a few astronauts, including Mae Jemison, ’77, have come from Stanford, right?
Stanford was incredibly well represented all the way back to the Apollo-era astronauts. Several astronauts spent time at Stanford, including folks like me with a couple of degrees from Stanford.
Editor’s note: Read Stanford’s 2001 story about astronaut Susan Helms, MS ’85.
What did you learn at Stanford that helped with your space travel?
Working at NASA is very much like being at Stanford. You’re surrounded by extremely bright people focused on a common vision. I felt very much at home when I got to NASA. The variety of things I was able to do at Stanford really set me up well. Stanford in Florence, rowing crew, being involved in student government—all those things broaden your horizons and enable you to work better as a teammate. Difficult classes prepared me for the challenges I’d face in my professional life. I can’t say enough good things about what a good place Stanford was and how it prepared me for life as an astronaut.
What about other future explorations—on Earth, too?
I’m part of a team that’s looking to fund a feature-length movie on Everest, so there is a chance that I’d get back. And I consult for some of the commercial human space-flight companies. So I have an inkling of the hope that I might get to visit space again.
When will the private companies go up?
[Maybe as soon as] 2013 with Virgin Galactic. Sir Richard Branson, he’s an amazing guy. He’s got another adventure called Virgin Oceanic. He wants to take people to the bottom of the ocean. I’d love to go to the bottom of the ocean and complete my trifecta!
Ms. Karen Springen
in Space exploration
on Jun 20 2011 8:25AM