Miles O'Brien Interviews Scott Parazynski About His Return to Everest

Editor's note: In March 2009, just a few days before he departed for Nepal, Soctt Parazynski was interviewed by Miles O'Brien regarding the what, where, and why of Scott's return to Mt. Everest.

Scott Parazynski: Well, hello my name is Scott Parazynski I am 47-years-old. I am a former Astronaut and a mountaineer and I am about to embark on my second trip to Mount Everest. This time I have great confidence I will get to the summit and back. That will take place probably on the second or third week in May of this year.

Miles O'Brien: How are you getting ready for this climb? Are you working out?

Scott Parazynski: There are so many different elements involved with getting ready for Mount Everest. There is the physical, which involves really, really intense workouts. In the gym I do a spin aerobics. There are these little tiny petite female instructors often that are the toughest women on earth and they bark out orders at me and I salute and I try and keep up with them.

Spin aerobics has been the core of my preparation. But I also do stadium steps, lifting weights, and lots of other things on the side. The core of all of this is getting your legs strong and getting your aerobic base tuned at a very, very high level. I am there. I am ready.

The second thing is your gear. There's a lot of gear required to attempt Mount Everest. It's almost like taking a very lightweight spacesuit with you. You use a down suit, very thick gloves, a special backpack, ice axes, harnesses, carabiners, hydration systems, and other things.

Then, of course, you have to just get both your mind your personal life ready. I am very fortunate to have a wonderful support of family that is very patient with me. They are allowing me to go back here for a second season. But as you can imagine, going away for two months is a very big challenge for one's family.

Getting all your personal effects in order, getting the direct deposits, the automatic bill payment, and insurance and other things set up for this endeavor - I think I am just about there in that regard as well. Tomorrow I board the plane for Katmandu.

Miles O'Brien: Are there easy parallels to this in space flight? What is the same, what is different between the two?

Scott Parazynski: Great question. Preparing for a space shuttle flight or an EVA (spacewalk) is a very intense process. It's the physical training, of course, since going on a space walk is very physically demanding. There is also mental preparation and knowing your tasks. There’s knowing your equipment and how it works and how the gear might fail. Then there is the process of going through everything in your head, training runs - the things that you will be doing outside on a space walk. Going to Mount Everest is quite similar. You need to be getting your body ready, your gear, mentally preparing for the rigors of summit day and what leads up to it. It takes a lot of work.

There are a number of differences as well. Out on a spacewalk we are wearing what is essentially our own personal spacecraft. We a have a visor, an oxygen backpack, cooling systems, battery power, and protection from the elements.

Similarly, on our summit day on Everest, for example, we will have a down suit, an oxygen system, goggles to protect us from the ultraviolet radiation that could basically fry our eyeballs in very short order. The physical workload of that summit day, in particular, is very, very intense. But when you are out on a spacewalk you are typically very comfortable. There are brief bursts of very hard physical work that. But on the mountain you have to give it everything you have got every step of the way.

Miles O'Brien: In a way, as far as the physical training goes, it is more demanding preparing for a summiting effort that it would be for a difficult space walk.

Scott Parazynski: Yes, that's a true statement. It is a slightly different type of preparation. For a spacewalk you concentrate on your upper body. It's important that you have strength and endurance in your forearms, and in your hands, in particular, because you are compressing the pressurized spacesuit as you move within it. But on Everest, it's mostly your heart and your leg muscles that are going to carry you up to the summit. So there is a different focus in terms of what part of your body you use, but in both, there is a similar intensity.

Miles O'Brien: Could you just give me a quick summary of your astronaut career.

Scott Parazynski: I was very fortunate to be selected in 1992 when I was in residency training in emergency medicine. I came to Houston in 1992, and flew five wonderful space shuttle flights. One of these missions was to the Russian space station "Mir" when I did a spacewalk with the Russian Cosmonaut.

I have also flown with Senator John Glenn. That was a real highlight for me - one of boyhood heroes and to get a chance to fly with him. It was just amazing. I have also done two missions to the International Space Station and have done a number of spacewalks there as well. So, all totaled, I have completed five space shuttle missions and seven spacewalks.

Miles O'Brien: Walk us through your last shuttle flight if you would.

Scott Parazynski: My last spaceflight, STS-120, in October 2007, was certainly the apogee of my shuttle career. We had a very ambitious flight plan. We were delivering a new module called "Harmony" or Node 2 to the space station. We were also relocating a big solar array truss from the top of the space station, out to the very distal tip of the space station. That would have been a couple of mission's worth of content in and of itself. But as the solar arrays were being deployed, the second solar array ended up getting snagged and ripped.

Over the course of 72 hours, mission control and experts around the country were able to come up with an ingenious method to deal with this. First of all, they found a way to get me out to the far reaches of the space station - farther than anyone had ever been before. The did this by cobbling together Canadarm 2 (the robotic arm of the space station) plus the shuttle's inspection boom - a 90 foot platform upon which I stood.

They also specially designed and fabricated some "sutures" to fix the tear - we called them "cufflinks." To do this we essentially created a metal shop onboard the space station and we built these five-foot long cufflinks.

I was out the end of this 90-foot platform and I performed surgery on a live solar array. It had 100 Volts of energy coursing through its veins, if you will. After 7 hours and 19 minutes, we had completed a very successful spacewalk thanks to some absolutely brilliant work by engineers in Houston and around the country. This was definitely the high point of my spaceflight career.

Miles O'Brien: A high point in many respects. If you had not restored it, then it would not have worked, would it?

Scott Parazynski: That's right. I have a call sign "Too-Tall Parazynski" it dates back to when I was in training for a Mir docking flight. I was going to go live aboard the Russian space station "Mir" for about four-and-a-half months. It turns out I was too tall to fit in the Soyuz capsule in an emergency, so I had to abort that training flow and didn't get a chance to live a long duration on "Mir". But my height did come into play on this mission. I think if I were even a few inches shorter I wouldn't have been able to physically reach the places where I needed to affect this repair. So my height definitely served me well on this flight.

Miles O'Brien: You know a lot of people ask after you are an astronaut, how do you follow that act up? Would you view Everest as an appropriate follow-up to your astronaut career?

Scott Parazynski: Well, I am very appreciative of the career that I have had, but as my wife will readily say five flights is enough. I am done. But she is patient enough to let me do one more big adventure here. It's been a life-long dream of mine to go to summit Everest, so I am very fortunate to have the opportunity for a second year in a row to go back and try and finish this quest. But I don't think that I really need to have any follow-on or to exceed anything that I have done before. I am very appreciative of those things, but looking forward to whatever challenges might be out there in the future.

Miles O'Brien: Do you feel compelled to summit?

Scott Parazynski: Well, that's been a question for the ages. Dating back to Mallory and his famous quip to the New York media, "Because it's there." That really is a profound answer if you really think about it. For me, what Everest means is achieving a personal goal that is very, very difficult…the ability to stand in a place where very few people can go.

It takes a lot of determination, drive, and skill –a skill set acquired over many years in apprenticeship in the lower mountains of the world getting ready for something like this. It's the ability to bring together all the mental imagery that I have from reading every book that's ever been written about Mount Everest and then actually seeing it myself.

It was very exciting for me last season to be up there at Camp 3 at 24,500 feet, to see the Yellow Band and the Geneva Spur, and the South Col, and the South Summit from afar. These are storied places with lots and lots of history that I know about and to get a chance to go see that firsthand is something that makes a lot of sense to me.

I guess some people would call it a little bit nutty, but, for me, it's something I just have to do.

Miles O'Brien: What happened last year?

Scott Parazynski: Last year, I was doing extremely well. It was very well acclimatized and was taking a second trip up to Camp 3. I was ready to go on to the summit and was within 24 hours of reaching the summit. It was the morning of the 59th day, at 6:30 in the morning when I had to make a pretty difficult decision.

Casey and his team were on the summit. I could hear them on the radio - they were celebrating. I, of course, was there at Camp 3 getting ready for my summit bid the following day, but I had a very fitful night. I had woken up the morning before with some low-back discomfort, but I was able to get my harness on, my crampons on, I tightened my waist harness very tightly like a weightlifters belt and it felt pretty good.

I was able to climb up to Camp 3. As soon as I got to Camp 3 and released that tension, I knew that I was really in a world of hurt. I tossed and turned and writhed through the night thinking that maybe in the morning I would be able to give it a go and head for the summit.

That morning, on the 59th day, I put on some oxygen and my crampons and made a short trial run and knew that it wasn't the right thing to do. If I had gone any higher, potentially, I could have put my climbing teammates in a condition of rescue and then also jeopardize their own summit success.

So I had to turn around at that point and very slowly descend the mountain. But as soon as I turned my back on the summit, I knew that if I could get healed up, whatever had happened to me, if I could recover, one day I would return and this is my story.

We will see how it ends up this year.

Miles O'Brien: And you ultimately had -- is it a ruptured disc?

Scott Parazynski: That's right. So I got home to Houston after a pretty slow and painful descent and a long, long coach flight home, took a couple of weeks off from work just trying to rest my back and get rid of the discomfort and it just wasn't getting any better. And in fact, some numbness had started to develop in my legs and so I went in for and MRI scan and, sure enough, I had a small ruptured disc that needed to be surgically repaired. So I had that surgery the middle part of last summer and am doing great.

Miles O'Brien: You must have been disappointed being that close.

Scott Parazynski: It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but I knew that it was the right decision for everyone involved. So I think that's an important thread. Mountaineering, of course, is about, to a certain extent, personal accomplishment, and triumph. But it's also about the team. You have to put your teammates first and know what's best and safest for the whole.

Unfortunately, I couldn't join the rest of my team on the summit, but certainly they are going to be following along this summer on the blogs and I have heard form a bunch of them, they are all cheering me on and so I look forward to joining the club of being an Everest Summiteer some time in May with them.

Miles O'Brien: Okay, you are going to be blogging, your going to be sending back video, you have got a scientific package, your are going to be tracked on SPOT? What exactly what you are going to be doing on this particular attempt?

Scott Parazynski: This is a really exciting opportunity to get a chance to go back to Everest. It's like having a second space flight. The first flight is very exciting, but certainly overwhelming and you can't really absorb all the different elements, all the beauty of it. On your second and subsequent flights you become more and more efficient at doing the job.

So I think, for me, having a chance to go back to Everest is like that second or third space flight. I will be able to really be a veteran, to really take in the whole experience and then hopefully share it with a lot of people on a blog that we are doing http://onorbit.com/everest.

We will be doing a lot of scientific research. As an astronaut, I am very interested in getting humans not only back to the moon, but on to Mars to search for signs of life one day and so there is a field of biology called Astrobiology, looking for life that can live in very extreme conditions. These types of life are called extremophiles. We will be looking for verifiable evidence that life exists in these very cold and high places.

We will be looking for rock samples with certain types of bacterial or algae growth on them and we will try and collect some of those. We will take temperatures of rocks using special sensors called iButtons that I will actually deploy on the rock and come back on a subsequent day to retrieve these things.

What we are interested in is seeing if the Yellow Band, for example, the temperatures there get above zero at any point during the day. If so, then liquid water is likely to exist there instead of just sublimating away as things do in many places, in cold climates like Antarctica. So we will look for evidence that water in liquid form exists at these high places.

We are going to be taking other types of biological samples. We will be taking rock samples and one of the things I have got a geologic hammer here, this is build for our return to the moon and I will be taking this up potentially all the way up to the Yellow Band, which is a limestone part of the mountain - and limestone is in area where you can oftentimes find fossils.

So, it would be really exciting to find fossilized remains at 25,000 feet above sea level. We will be doing those kinds of things, and then we will also be field-testing a number of special devices that we will talk about more on the blogs and when we get back home. One of them is a hydration system.

Miles O'Brien: Give us a sense of how people can peek over your shoulders there; are there a lot of ways that they can anticipate?

Scott Parazynski: The main blog will be onorbit.com/everest. We also have a Twitter feed and I am just learning about social networking through this effort as well, I am relatively new to Twitter, but the Twitter account is @SPOTScott. So we will be using a special device called SPOT which is a GPS locater that feeds up to a satellite network and then posts it to the web.

People we will be able to follow myself and then Danuru who will be my Sherpa sidekick as well as Rohan Freeman who will be a climbing team member with me. He was on the mountain with me last season as well as and for similar reasons he had to abort his climb. He will be back on Everest with his Sherpa.

So all four of us we will be carrying these SPOT units around mountain and during our acclimatization treks and so people will be able to follow us on the web as we do this. Finally, the Discovery Channel is filming another season on the mountain. It's called "Everest Beyond the Limit". Dick Colthurst and his crew will be tracking every step of the way all the way up to the summit. The Sherpas will be wearing head-mounted "Sherpa-cams" so you will actually be able to see every boot print as we scale the mountain. As part of that effort with Discovery I will serve as the climbing team doctor for the high altitude mountaineers.

Miles O'Brien: You mentioned to me that it is just not a matter of “if”, it's the matter “when” people are going to be affected by that environment, I guess probably in some ways it's more hazardous than space flight, right?

Scott Parazynski: Well, statistically speaking, shuttle flight is a higher risk if you look at the history of both activities. I think climbing Everest can be done quite safely. The gray zone is judgment - and using last season is an example: we lost one climber (not on my team), but a climber who didn't use the proper restraint. I guess that is the easiest way to say it. He had enough energy to make it to the summit, but didn't leave enough in reserve, not enough gas in the tank to get back down.

Another climber did the same thing. He was able to get part way down and ended up spending the night outside. He was ultimately rescued, but lost the tips of several digits. So that is something that I just can't see myself doing.

We have wonderful technology and gear. We have the ability to predict weather and we should have enough knowledge of our own personal capacity or knowledge of our nutrition and our hydration and just how we are feeling to make a good call, to use good headwork whether or not go for the summit. I feel quite comfortable that I can do something like this quite safely.

There are certainly elements that are beyond my control - avalanches, for example. But we have good knowledge of where those tend to occur and they are not directly on the climbing route. So I guess the one area that we do concern ourselves with is the Khumbu icefall which you encounter on the very first day out of base camp. If you are very fit you can get through there quite quickly (that's the secret to it). You just go very early in the morning when the ice is hard and be very efficient and move quickly through there. Do that and you can be quite safe.

Miles O'Brien: So, it occurs to me that since your training at NASA is all about managing risk - you have the perfect training for this, don't you?

Scott Parazynski: I think so. People look at some of the things I have done in my life and they think, "Wow! You are a risk taker, aren't you?" And that's absolutely not the case. In fact, I guess the proper term would be risk manager. I know the environments that I go in to, I understand them, I am trained for them, and I don't do things without a lot of preparation and good headwork.

These are exciting places to be and that's what appeals to me is the adventure of it and the exploration and I think we can send people on to these types of environments very successfully and safely with the right preparation.

Miles O'Brien: So what's the percentage of mental versus physical in this situation?

Scott Parazynski: It requires a high level of mental focus and belief that you can accomplish what you have set up to do in both undertakings. I would say in a space walk there are brief periods - depending on the task that you are doing - where you are really putting out a full effort. But for the most part it's quite comfortable. The space suit becomes a second skin to you and you just go about your work and the physical part is transparent to you because you have trained so hard for it.

On a big mountain like Everest, you feel the physical aspect it all the time. As I reflected last season, every time I went to a higher camp, it was the hardest work I had ever had in my life. So there is definitely a serious physical element of the mountaineering, but there is also a mental aspect. Making sure that you are using your good technique - you are applying good headwork and things like that.

Miles O'Brien: To some people the physical starts taking over the mental, you have got to be aware of that.

Scott Parazynski: That's right. As you get higher and higher with oxygen concentration surrounding you getting lower and lower, it takes more and more focus to make sure that you are making the right decisions. Some people lose that capacity, they have one thing on their mind and one alone, which is to make it to the summit, and that's really not the thing that should be at the forefront of your mind.

You have to believe that you are going to make it to the summit. You have to have that determination. But you also have to have enough in reserve to make the right decisions along the way, and looking at the weather around you, listening to your body – deciding whether or not it's the right thing to do it to go higher. And unfortunately that's where a lot of people make mortal mistakes.

Miles O'Brien: You almost have to set yourself outside of yourself and look down on it. Does that work that way?

Scott Parazynski: Yes, you certainly have to take a global view of yourself to look outside yourself, and also you have to look at your teammates. You can't just focus solely on your little world. You have to look at the people around you and make sure that they are making the right decisions as well, because they may be compromised.

There are a number of different high-altitude medical conditions that can be very quickly fatal: high altitude pulmonary edema, which is where you essentially drown in your own fluid in your lungs, and high altitude cerebral edema, which is swelling in your brain that can be very quickly fatal.

High altitude cerebral edema is a condition wherein your brain swells and you loose the ability to make good decisions - you oftentimes lose balance, your speech can be affected, and of course, it makes it very, very difficult to get a person down when they are succumbing to this condition.

The only cure really is to descend, and descend very rapidly. You can give people some medication and oxygen, but the only thing that you can definitely do is get them down or they will succumb to it.

Miles O'Brien: Okay, final thought. Introduce your family to us tell little bit about your wife and kids.

Scott Parazynski: Alright! Gail and I have been married for 16 years. She is from the Boston area. We met in Colorado on a blind date and we moved down to Texas about a year later. We have two wonderful kids. My son, Luke, is 12. He is a sixth-grader and loves sports, especially basketball and has played football as well for his school team this year. People say that he is like mini me. He looks exactly like me except his hair a little bit longer.

My daughter Jenna is just a beautiful little girl, 9-year-old, blonde hair, blue eyes, and looks like a supermodel. But she is special - she has autism and so that's been a very significant focus in our lives - making sure that she has the resources that she needs to reach her full potential. She has made incredible strides with a lot of effort by our family and therapist. She goes to a great school, here in Houston where they have teachers that love her and understand autism.

About half of the day she is in mainstream education and then the other half she is with teachers who specialize in autism. So she is doing incredibly well. She has good language capability relative to the spectrum of autism and loves people and we just are very blessed to have her come as far as she has.

But one of the things that I would like to do on this expedition of mine is raise some additional awareness for autism. On my down suit I have a patch that commemorates that and certainly is one of the things that, like I said, has shaped our lives here.

Leaving your family is a very difficult thing to do. It brings me back to leaving my family for a space shuttle flight, going in to quarantine. In particular it's very difficult to say goodbye to the kids. When we go in to a space flight quarantine, we have to say goodbye to our young kids about a week before the launch and then we are in space for a couple of weeks or more. It ends up being three - or even four weeks - that we don't see them. That's the hardest part for me. I have never done a long duration space flight, but I can imagine saying goodbye to your family for six months, that would be just be really, really difficult.

Thankfully, now, on the International Space Station, they have satellite phones and ability to videoconference on a fairly regular basis. So the connectivity with planet Earth is a little bit better. I think, this year, my connectivity back home from Everest will be much better than it was last year. You may recall last year there was a Chinese Olympic torch relay to the summit and so during that first couple of months of the season essentially all of our Internet blogging and quite a bit our satellite communications were shut down.

As a result, I only had the ability every four or five days to call home. I really felt the separation there and I know that they did too. This year, I am looking for to much better connectivity, the ability to share what's going on with them not only online but to call them on a regular basis, but it still does weigh on you heavily knowing that you are going in to a place where you really need to use good headwork, manage those risks, and come back home safely.

It's a famous adage, maybe even a cliché now; the summit is optional, but to come back home is not. And that's on the forefront of my mind. I know that I am coming back; hopefully, I will have a brief touch and go at the summit, that's the goal, but I know I am coming back.

Miles O'Brien: Pretty confident you are going to make it?

Scott Parazynski: I feel really good about my chances of success. I have spent a lot of time talking with my teammates from last year, about half of them made it, half did not. But, as I said earlier, I was one of the stronger and faster climbers on the mountain. I have good technique and I am very efficient on the mountain.

So, they all said, my odds of success are very, very high, based on how I was doing up until the point of my injury. So, yes, I can taste it. I have seen it from not that far away, and I have pre-visualized making it all the way to the top. So I just have to string it all together this season.

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