Status Report

NASA Co-op and Intern Go Beyond ‘What If’ to Conquer Mount Everest

By SpaceRef Editor
May 2, 2014
Filed under ,

For Johnson Space Center cooperative-education (co-op) student Tanaya Bhardwaj and intern Stefan Djordjevic, being at NASA didn’t just mean they would let the astronauts have all the fun dabbling in extreme environments. They each decided that when an opportunity came to trek to Mount Everest’s base camp during the 2014 climbing season arose, they would grab it with all the fearlessness commonly exhibited by our own brave explorers.
Bhardwaj and Djordjevic will make up a small team dubbed Expedition #NeverRest, which was pulled together by Bhardwaj’s cousin, Malaika Kapur, for the benefit of a charity that gives children with heart defects another chance at life. But not only will they walk for a good cause—they are also walking to push their own limits from May 1 to 23.
Bhardwaj is a University of Illinois student studying business. For her first co-op tour at JSC, she supported the Office of Chief Financial Officer, working closely with the Mission Operations Directorate as a contact analyst. Before embarking for Everest, Bhardwaj spent the majority of her time doing Excel work, number crunching and cross-checking various financial systems.
Djordjevic, a fellow University of Illinois student and intern with JSC External Relations, spent his first tour working intimately with the University Collaboration and Partnerships Office (UCPO). He was instrumental in developing a database for UCPO that would allow any internal audience at JSC to use to work with other universities, fostering collaboration and encouraging exponential technology growth.
But not only are these two #NeverRest team members strangely parallel in their choice of university, their home base in Illinois or their career paths leading to JSC—they also bring international flair with them on their journey to the other side of the world. Bhardwaj is from India and Singapore, originally, while Djordjevic is a first-generation Serbian-American who holds his culture very close.
“Everyone’s proud of me back in Serbia—my grandparents, their whole small village—that I’m doing something new and exciting and innovative,” Djordjevic said.
While their trip will be exciting, it is not without some controversy. It remains unclear if Mount Everest will be officially closed for the 2014 season. Even before Bhardwaj and Djordjevic get to the immense mountain, climbers have been leaving in droves following the death of 16 Sherpa guides in an avalanche on April 18—the deadliest day in Everest’s illustrious history. Most of the Sherpa colleagues have refused to work, out of both respect and a fear of more accidents. However, while the tragedy does cast a pall on the expedition, it shouldn’t impact team #NeverRest, as they did not intend to go beyond base camp.
Yet as the future climbers can attest, their feat will not be without difficulty.
“I’m not as worried because I know I’ve taken the right steps, like reading different articles throughout the way, and I have been training since January doing the minimum cardio,” Bhardwaj said. “You can ask all the co-ops—I go to the gym every day. That’s what they know me for. It’s a lot of mental training as well, I feel. There’s a lack of oxygen and those external factors—but, at the same time—you have really to brace yourself for what’s about to come. You’re doing about 19 to 20 miles a day of trekking, and that’s a lot to take in going from a pretty sedentary lifestyle.”
Djordjevic will be satisfying his innate curiosity while exploring the mountain.
“I’m approaching this from more a scientific perspective, because I’m a biochemist,” Djordjevic said. The group is taking “a couple of pulse oximiters, which are basically devices that monitor your heart rate, oxygen saturation and perfusion index. I’m interested to see how us ‘flatlanders’ compare to people who are at a higher altitude already in British Columbia to see if there are changes to how our bodies respond to this extreme environment.”
While the #NeverRest team members will be bringing NASA accouterments along on the adventure to do their own kind of international outreach, they realize that their mission is eerily similar to the ones we practice and prepare for at JSC.
“I think of it as less of a challenge and more of a unique opportunity,” Bhardwaj said. “It’s going to be me and 13 other people in a pretty high-pressure environment. We’re all climbing Mount Everest together—we’ve just met each other—and I don’t know how these people are going to be or act under these constraints. But I think it’ll be really cool, because you have all these different perspectives there from people all around the world.”
Djordjevic continued, “I like to think of this as almost going in space. Although we don’t know them very well, we’re going into a very extreme environment where you can’t really breathe as easily … your circadian rhythms or sleeping habits change, your body changes, your blood pressure changes … and you just have to rely on your friends and instincts to make it successful.”
Luckily for team #NeverRest, they’re also determined to never fail in this special quest.
“I’ve been asking a lot of astronauts, Gene Kranz, and a bunch of random people, ‘What’s one quote that you live by?’” Djordjevic said. “Being here at NASA, I feel that I have a new quote that I really like: Live a life of oh wells instead of what ifs.”
For Bhardwaj and Djordjevic, they certainly aren’t asking “What if?” They may, however, be asking “What now?” after they return from Everest after May 23. It will take a lot, literally and figuratively, to top the world’s tallest peak.

SpaceRef staff editor.