Great Scott! This astronaut has probably endured more extremes than anyone

Great Scott! This astronaut has probably endured more extremes than anyone
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Great Scott! This astronaut has probably endured more extremes than anyone

Scott Parazynski has chased extremes all of his life. Not in a reckless way, perhaps, but rather because his life’s goal seems to have been to experience just about as much crazy stuff that one human possibly could. As a result, it seems plausible that Parazynski has experienced more extreme environments than any human ever has—and he has written a new book that brings the reader along for the ride: The Sky Below.

Consider the following places he has visited in his lifetime:

Outer space: Parazynski flew into space five times aboard the space shuttle, between 1994 and 2007. During that time he performed seven spacewalks, including the highly risky repair of the International Space Station’s solar array panel that was essential for powering the station’s new European and Japanese modules. Cumulatively, he spent 47 hours in space during these extravehicular activities.

Space stations: The astronaut visited both the aging Russian Mir space station in 1997 (“a dark and dank, musty place, subject to brownouts,” he says) and the International Space Station on two occasions in 2001 and 2007. He was rejected for a long-duration stay on Mir due to being too tall to fit in the Soyuz spacecraft.

Mount Everest: Parazynski twice attempted to climb Mount Everest. In 2008 he reached Camp 3, at 24,500 feet, before stopping due to extreme back pain. He returned to summit a year later, becoming the first and only astronaut to reach the peak. He carried a Moon rock to Earth’s tallest point.

Antarctica: As a medical officer for the US Antarctic Program, Parazynski has visited the three US-run year-round stations on the southernmost continent—Palmer, McMurdo, and the Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole. In one of the many colorful anecdotes in the book, he recounts proposing to his second wife at Robert F. Scott’s hut on Ross Island, the base camp of Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition from 1911 to 1913.

High-altitude lakes: During the spaceflight lull after the Columbia accident, Parazynski joined an expedition to the 19,409-foot Licancabur in Chile, where he dove into the emerald-green Laguna Blanca to study extremophiles. Scientists believe this cold environment, exposed to UV radiation and with a low atmospheric pressure, may be similar to the Martian environment about 3.5 billion years ago.

Volcanoes: Just last year, wearing a helmet, full-face filtration mask, and a fire-retardant suit, Parazynski climbed down a rope inside the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua. There, he helped to install sensors to monitor sulfuric gases, temperatures, pressure, and other variables down on the floor of the lava lake. All the while, he kept “a close eye on the molten surf.”

This book is unlike most astronaut memoirs, in that much of the story is not about being in space or the space program, but about all the other adventurous things Parazynski has done during his lifetime. There are other books that go into much better detail about what it was really like to be an astronaut, such as Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets, but few astronauts have lived such an interesting life.

More than just an astronaut memoir

As a boy of parents who traveled the world for their careers, Parazynski found himself living in Tehran, Iran, for most of the second half of 1978 as the country descended into revolution. In December of that year, Parazynski’s father found a note on his car, “Die, imperialist pig. You have one month to leave the country or we’ll kill you.” The family left the country for Greece shortly before the US embassy hostages were taken.

Later, Parazynski would compete for a spot in the US Winter Olympics in the sport of luge and actually went to the 1988 games in Calgary, staying in the Olympic Village as the “coach” of a competitor. As an astronaut, he served as Sen. John Glenn’s physician when the Mercury astronaut flew back into space at age 77. Parazynski, too, was a family escort for Rick Husband, who commanded STS-107. He would help the family deal with their loss after the Columbia accident.

I asked Parazynski if, at age 55, he was done adventuring. No, he said. Along with outer space and Everest, his third major goal is Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the Earth’s oceans, nearly 11,000 meters down. Just three people have ever descended down to this point, including the director James Cameron in 2012.

However, Parazynski said he would not go for the thrill alone. He expressed this sentiment in the book, writing, “I’ve learned that adventure is hollow without a greater purpose. Floating in space and looking back home changed my perspective. I looked down at the sky below and realized all of humankind is in the frame, living and breathing and moving inside that paper-thin atmosphere.” As a result, as part of any deep-sea mission, he wants to raise awareness about the health of Earth’s ailing oceans.

While anchored to a foot restraint on the end of the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, Parazynski assesses his improvised fix to the solar array.
Enlarge / While anchored to a foot restraint on the end of the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, Parazynski assesses his improvised fix to the solar array.

NASA

Although the book is a breezy read, it was not easy to write, Parazynski said. What he expected to take three to six months instead required a coauthor, Susy Flory, and more than three years. But he persisted, because he wanted to call attention to the NASA engineers and technicians who devised a fix to the solar array during the STS-120 mission in 2007. Really, they saved the space station with their improvised cuff-link, MacGyver-like solution that safely extended the panels. The book is published about a decade after this flight, with the fully built station in the prime of its life.

“The real motivation for me writing this book was to thank the wonderful people who have been such a wonderful part of my life, particularly the STS 120 solar array team,” he said. “I don’t think they were ever really properly feted. Well, I remember. And I know the amazing work they did.”

Listing image by NASA

Great Scott! This astronaut has probably endured more extremes than anyone

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