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#20 NASA Astronaut Training, Space Walks and Exploration and Innovation Under Extreme Pressure with Dr Scott Parazynski

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Virti Team
July 23, 2020

Description

For the 20th episode of the human performance podcast Alex is joined by Dr. Scott Parazynski who is a highly decorated physician, athlete, astronaut, and tech CEO and US Astronaut Hall of Famer. He is a widely sought after keynote speaker on innovation, risk management, mentorship and leadership under extreme adversity.

Scott has lived and traveled all over the world, spending many of his grade school years in places such as Senegal, Lebanon, Iran and Greece. A graduate of Stanford University and Medical School, he went on to train at Harvard and in Denver for a career in emergency medicine and trauma.
In 1992 he was selected to join NASA’s Astronaut Corps and eventually flew 5 Space Shuttle missions and conducted 7 spacewalks. Mission highlights include a global ozone mapping flight; leading the first joint US-Russian spacewalk while docked to the Russian space station Mir; serving as Senator John Glenn’s crewmate and “personal physician”; and assembly of the Canadian-built space station robotic arm.

In October 2007, Scott led the spacewalking team on STS-120, during which he performed 4 EVAs. The final EVA is regarded by many as one of the most challenging and dangerous ever performed. The tremendous coordinated effort in orbit and on the ground by Mission Control has been likened to the Space Shuttle and Space Station era’s “Apollo 13 moment.”
In addition to being a diver and accomplished mountaineer, Scott is also a commercial, instrument, multiengine and seaplane-rated pilot. On May 20, 2009, he became the first astronaut to stand on top of the world, the summit of Mount Everest. As a life-long explorer, he and a colleague recently set the first bootprints adjacent the world’s youngest lava lake, inside the crater of Massaya Volcano in Nicaragua.
He is a prolific inventor/product developer, and serves on the Boards of several companies. He is Founder and CEO of Fluidity Technologies, focused on the development of revolutionary input devices powered by machine learning to intuitively move through physical and virtual space.


Alex and Scott discuss motivating yourself as an individual, dealing with extreme pressure, training for Olympic Luge, Astronaut training, Astronaut training, Shuttle Launches, Space Walks, Climbing Everest and more
twitter.com/astrodocscott 

Transcript

Alex (Host):

Hey Scott, welcome to the podcast. How are you doing?

Scott Parazynski:

Doing great, Alex. Fun to be with you.

Alex (Host):

Great to catch up. I think like many of the guests we've had on, it's just a pleasure to be speaking to you albeit not in person. I was just jokingly saying before the podcast started that I think whenever I speak to you, I'm always just blown away by everything you've done to the point where I don't want to come off as too much of a nerd. I never jump into your backstory too much, so this is my guilty pleasure asking you lots of nerdy questions.

Scott Parazynski:

You're too kind. I'm an uber nerd and I've had some great adventures in life that have... Cards have fallen in my favor of course, many times, but great to swap stories with you as well.

Alex (Host):

Fantastic. One of the key bits of your backstory is being a physician and I wonder with your backstory, if you want to talk a little bit about your I suppose motivations behind getting into career in meds and everything you've done, and take it from there.

Scott Parazynski:

Sure. You bet, Alex. Well, my grandfather who perished before I was born unfortunately, he died even before my parents were married, he was a physician. I had heard the family lore about my grandfather who was always very interested in healthcare and wanting to help people as he had done. And combined with that, my father worked on the Apollo program that first took men to the late '60s, early '70s. I had these two burning interests in my childhood. Healthcare as well as the space program and actually wanting to be the first astronaut to set bootprints down on Mars. Those were my two ambitions in life and they seem a little incongruous perhaps. Going to medical school in the Bay Area at Stanford, I had an opportunity to work at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. And I saw a pathway for me to combine the two boyhood passions of mine, basically, the merger into space medicine.

Scott Parazynski:

I started doing research that applied to keeping astronauts healthy on long-duration space flights and one thing led to another. I ended up having an opportunity to apply for the space program and ultimately became a physician astronaut and I got a chance to fly on five space shuttle missions and do some really cool things up in space. But also, my training is in healthcare and as a physiologist trained in emergency medicine, so I'm really drawn to human performance in the extreme. How do we sustain life in extreme environments like space? Like undersea habitats, on tops of tall mountains. How can we develop technologies to make it safe for people to go do work there? To extract science? And then how can we use those discoveries then to improve the quality of life here down at sea level? Back in our everyday lives.

Scott Parazynski:

That's been a recurring theme in my life. Having an opportunity to go to lots of different extraordinary environments. Space, mountains, inside volcanoes. I've done some really fun things with some big-thinking explorers. I think you would agree with me, Alex, this is just an extraordinary time to be alive when there's this confluence of information and technology and capability to evermore audacious things with our technologies. Right now, I'm essentially working in tech. I have my own company called Fluidity Technologies, which is based around some of my [inaudible 00:06:14]. But essentially, human machine interfaces and robotic controls, but also working on a number of other technologies. These are certainly challenging times but for people in tech, there are also great opportunities. There are lots of problems for us to solve, right?

Alex (Host):

Right, absolutely. The word challenge is a really apt one actually. And certainly in the current environment, one of the things that I was talking about on the podcast with a number of previous guests was in any challenging environment, people who are entrepreneurial in nature are almost energized by that. What could we do to help? How can we found a solution to help people in these situations? One of the things that struct me in your backstory was even at quite an early stage, you were looking at inventing things. You had that interest in how things worked in space and human physiology. Is there anything in your backstory I guess even before you got to Stanford, which in itself is an amazing achievement, that you think really instilled in you that real ability to step up to a challenge and actually challenge yourself and push you through some of the later things you did, which has proven valuable?

Scott Parazynski:

I think I owe a great deal to my parents. They were very adventurous in their own right when I was very young. I was an only child, we were able to relocate to live in West Africa, and later in the Middle East and in Europe. At a very early age before I even went to college, I had an opportunity to travel the world. I had an insatiable sense of curiosity. I don't know why I'm wired this way, but it's just the way I am. I guess I'm internally motivated to solve problems. I really do enjoy challenges. When people tell me something is impossible or, "You can't do that," I [inaudible 00:08:30] a little bit internally and I brainstorm how can I make something that others are saying is impossible to do, possible? I am an inventor, as are you. I think you'd probably agree with this description but, an inventor is a motivated whiner. Someone who identifies problems but then really cogitates upon what the problem is, the underlying problem, and then are there a variety of solutions that can be brought to bear to solve that problem?

Scott Parazynski:

And invariably, you can come up with solutions that have real value, that are worth commercializing. From a very early age I was a tinkerer, a builder, and an inventor. My father was an engineer working on the Apollo program, but we built furniture, I worked on cars and things of that nature. Just that whole upbringing I think set me up for what I'm doing today.

Alex (Host):

One of the things that you did even before... I think I'm right in saying that you were... Actually, was it before you were accepted onto the space program that you actually found an interest in the Olympics and in particular, luge?

Scott Parazynski:

Yes, indeed. I was very athletic. I road crew and ran track. Played a little basketball as well, especially in high school. I wasn't Olympic caliber in those sports, but I had an opportunity to try out for this crazy winter Olympic sport called luge. And I'm sure you've seen it. It's a feet-first on a sled about the size of a cafeteria tray and you go breakneck speeds, 85, 90 miles an hour down a icy track, pulling high Gs. I had seen it on the Olympics and thought, "Wow, that would be incredible to try that sometime," but I never imagined that I'd ever get a chance. There was a selection. The U.S. team was looking to recruit athletes from other sports to give it a go. Long story short, in the build up to the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada, I was selected to try out the sport in Lake Placid and I spent essentially three winters while I was in medical school, training and competing in that sport and did quite well in the U.S. Olympic trials, but didn't quite make our squad.

Scott Parazynski:

But a exhilarating life experience and it was actually a defining moment in my life. Even though I didn't get a chance to compete and represent my country, a door opened up for me to serve as a coach of another team. In fact, the winter Olympic powerhouse of the Philippines. A good friend of mine needed a coach and support for the Calgary games and I got a chance to go to Calgary and march in the opening ceremonies. Albeit, behind a different flag and national anthem, but I was really a wonderful life experience.

Alex (Host):

I guess at that stage, had you done much coaching of others? Or had you mainly been I suppose in teams or performing yourself?

Scott Parazynski:

I had mostly been performing as an athlete competing myself. Part of the job actually, was building and repairing sleds and I remember halfway through the qualifying rounds, my buddy Ray Alcampo from the Philippines, broke his sled and he needed to go down the track one more time showing a clean passage down the track or he wouldn't be able to compete. And I recall staying up all night repairing his sled, getting him back on the ice, and he had a good, clean run the next day and he was able to compete. That was really a harrowing event that it's all part and partial of what it takes to support an athlete at the Olympics.

Alex (Host):

It's an absolutely amazing sport. I'm slightly [inaudible 00:13:11] to say as some who trained in orthopedic surgery because if you don't come down safely, it's probably not very fun. But it must be incredibly exhilarating when you're at the top, especially when you're competing at a high level. Out of all the things you've done, where do you think the exhilaration of going down a luge run fits in do you think?

Scott Parazynski:

It's such an intense, explosive experience. I recall one particular run in Lake Placid at the peak of the winter and I think it was minus 30 degrees at the start house, and with windchill, it was below minus 40. It was just brutally cold, so you would warm up in the start house. You'd run out quickly, get on your sled, rock back on the pedals and repulse yourself down the track, and it was one of the most dangerous tracks in the world. One combination of curves is just mind-numbingly flattening. It's just incredible readjustment of g-forces as you make this S-turn down the track. A terrifying thing and you're craning down and within 45 seconds of departing the start house, you're at the bottom of the run and you're completely drenched in sweat and your heart is racing at 160 beats per minute. It's just this intensity of both physical and mental exertion.

Scott Parazynski:

There's really nothing like it in the world. That sense of speed and acceleration. You would just love the experience. It's somewhat akin to the exhilaration that you would experience on a rocket launch as well. There's months, if not years of preparation leading up to eight and a half minutes of acceleration off of the planet and the anticipation of level the planet and then finally at T-zero, the main engines on the space shuttle ignite and you're thrown back in your seat at three times your normal body weight or 3Gs and the ship is rattling. There's so much vibration, it's almost difficult to read the displays in front of you. You realize that in eight and a half minutes, you'll be traveling 17500 miles an hour in orbit.

Alex (Host):

Wow.

Scott Parazynski:

I don't know which experience is more profound but I wouldn't trade either one.

Alex (Host):

It's really interesting. There's a lot of research in the literature and I think anyone who's been in a high-performing team, often speaks to the fact that they've been involved in sports. Not necessarily to say an Olympic level, but that I suppose an ability to work in a team and strive for a goal when you're young, particularly in high school or something like that, is often attributed to people who do well in teams in later life. Is that something that you found do you think?

Scott Parazynski:

Absolutely. There's an essential skillset for working at NASA or in any high-powered role, and that is to be successful as a contributing team member. I can't think of a single extraordinary accomplishment in human existence that doesn't involve a team. Even in solo type sport, there are coaches, and nutritionists, and sports psychologists, and so on and so forth. Certainly, when you consider something as technically challenging as going into space, there are literally thousands of people that go into each and every mission. It's the technicians that turn the wrenches that assemble the spacecraft, the scientists and engineers who prepare the science in the vehicle for flight. The instructors, the flight controllers, scientists from around the world, and a crew of six or seven astronauts.

Scott Parazynski:

Absolutely, the importance of team can't be underestimated or undervalued. In fact, one of the things that we would do as space shuttle crews before even beginning our training flow together as a team, we would use a program called National Outdoor Leadership School or NOLS. I'm not sure if you've heard of it, but it takes teams of leaders out into the field into remote areas. Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, sometimes up in Alaska. You're thrown out into the wilderness for 10 days and you have to navigate, find your own shelter, and really gel as a team. And it's just an extraordinary way to develop one's own leadership ability, but also to assess the strength of everyone on your team and fantastic program.

Alex (Host):

Let's jump to what you were just talking about, which was the training for when you were accepted into the space program. It's something that obviously people will see in movies, they will often be shortened into a montage. I've obviously when I was out in Houston, seen a lot of the training facilities that NASA uses for astronaut training. Can you just explain your initial excitement of being accepted? And then what you were faced with in a training program.

Scott Parazynski:

Well, first off, getting the call that you've gotten the dream job is certainly a day that I'll never forget. The selection process takes about six to nine months and you don't know whether or not you're being seriously considered or not and every time the phone rings, you're thinking it might be NASA calling, but I do remember the day I got that call and just the euphoria that I'd be moving to Houston and starting to train for a space flight. It was just a extraordinary day. The training itself is really quite unique. There's no facility on Earth that allows us to essentially turn off the gravity. You have to integrate through a lot of different types of modalities to get a sense of what it's going to be like to live and work up in space.

Scott Parazynski:

In fact, virtual reality is certainly something that's leveraged quite extensively to include augmented reality akin to what you do with your company, Alex. We would use aircraft. High-performance jet aircraft T-38s, as well as aircraft that would give us brief periods of weightlessness. We called this aircraft the Vomit Comet because the nose of the airplane would nose over and give us a few seconds of weightlessness followed by a 2G pullout. It would porpoise through the sky some people found this quite provocative. Thankfully, it never impacted me that way. There's a lot of fundamental knowledge that you have to get through. Lectures and other types of simulators. There's a cabin that rocks and rolls like the space shuttle would do on launch.

Scott Parazynski:

We'd practice all of our launch procedures and emergency recovery, but my favorite was called the neutral buoyancy laboratory. It's the largest swimming pool on Earth. It's 40 feet deep, 100 feet wide and 200 feet in length, and inside there's a full mock up of the International Space Station and the space shuttle payload bay, and we could practice everything that we would do outside on our space walks. That really is just a dream getting dunked into the water in your white spacesuit, the divers would get you neutrally buoyant such that you wouldn't sink to the bottom of the pool or flip to the top. You would have this mental transformation where you were instantly in space and you can move around in three dimensions in this beautiful fashion the way that you would on a real spacewalk.

Alex (Host):

Visually, that's one of the things when... I've not actually physically seen it, but one of the things that some of the trainers at NASA showed me was actually they created an underwater 360-degree film, which we in virtual reality. Anyone listening who can't quite imagine what that looks like, if you go onto something like YouTube on NASA's channel and search for underwater training, I think is what they've named the video, it's absolutely incredible. I can only speak from our experiences when we were building our company. Obviously, all the astronaut training and everything that NASA does, whether it's using virtual reality or whether it's the physical training, is just so high-end. Obviously, quite rightly because we're going into these incredibly potentially hazardous environments. For you personally, what do you think the hardest bits of that regime were? Did you know from an early stage that you were going to be deployed? Or was that something where you went for your training, then you were given your instructions?

Scott Parazynski:

It was assumed that since you'd been accepted, you would one day fly in space. Of course, it costs a lot of money as you point out, to train someone to do spacewalking, to fly robotic arms, to launching the space shuttle and land it. There's an incredible capital expenditure getting you ready to go. It was more or less expected that you would do well enough to make the grade and get a chance to go flying. In terms of the most difficult aspect of the training, it was all fun. I think you'd probably agree with me on this, but I think if you're passionate about something, you're going to excel.

Alex (Host):

Yep.

Scott Parazynski:

If you're going to work on something and put your full heart into it, that's the best place imaginable for you to be. For me, it was just a joy to get a chance to go to work every day even though sometimes the training was very, very difficult. The space shuttle launch simulations were really heinous, really. The instructors would assiduously break various subsystems during a simulated launch, and it could be one sensor coupled with an auxiliary power unit, coupled with one string on a computer. And if you didn't realize that it had huge impact to your main engines, and it was about to explode, it could be a very bad day for you in that simulation. You really needed to have an in-depth knowledge of everything. Not only the way things are supposed to work, but how they might fail and you would need to understand the implications of how one system impacted the others. Very much akin to medicine. The cardio pulmonary systems directly impact to what you did as an orthopedist. If you didn't have that inner working of all the systems, harm could come to your patient.

Scott Parazynski:

Same thing, the space shuttle is very, very complex craft with over 3000 circuit breakers, switches, control interfaces, and you had to know how every single one of them worked and interplayed. It was a fascinating education that I had, but then the intensity of the training was at another level still. What was interesting is as they were making the simulations harder and harder for us as we got closer and closer to the flight, we realized, hey, we really know how to do this. We're a proficient team and we can handle anything that might come about on our launch. Invariably, we would get one or two alarms on our ride up to orbit and it was no big deal whatsoever. In fact, our hearts wouldn't even skip a beat. It was just, "Okay, we've seen this, done this and let's carry on." The process of training that we went through was very, very effective. [crosstalk 00:27:32] manage the stress.

Alex (Host):

I was just about to say, that's something that we talk about a lot, which is if you have effective training, it does exactly what you described, which is it prepares the individuals and it reduces our anxiety and our stress, and then they're less likely to... Not just less likely make errors, but actually to perform at their best. And that speaks volumes to all of the research and the preparation that the training teams at NASA did.

Scott Parazynski:

Absolutely, and it carries over into everything that you do. I had one really extraordinary experience in my spacewalking crew on my very last flight into space. We had to repair a live solar panel, and this was something that was completely unscripted, had never been envisioned that we'd have to go out and do something this complex to a live, energized solar panel. But based on the years of experience I had, all those hours in the training tank, the framework of operations and knowledge that myself and our team had, we were able to go out and do something that was way off script and it worked very, very well. [crosstalk 00:28:56].

Alex (Host):

That story in particular is just incredible. I think partly because it's out of the blue and I remember when I first read through your book, The Sky Below, I think everyone's saying it's the lead and the inspiration for the book where you're talking about the team and everything they did and what-

Scott Parazynski:

That's right.

Alex (Host):

It's just absolutely incredible. I know you touched on the actual takeoff and launch and what it was like the first time you were going up. What was it like actually stepping onto the foot of the space station? And equally, what was it like when you found out you needed to do that emergency repair on quite an important bit of equipment?

Scott Parazynski:

The space station is an extraordinary laboratory in the sky. It's a city in the sky. It's a coming together of countries around the world providing technology and science. It's a wonderful global accomplishment and I was very fortunate to travel there a couple of times during my career to help build it and also repair it. The ultimate astronaut experience is floating out of the hatch. The first time I did so was actually while docked to the Russian space station, Mir, which is of course, no longer in space. It's actually at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean right now, they de-orbited it. But, getting a chance to float outside and just have a thin visor between you and your beautiful blue planet below, it's an out-of-body experience. There's no IMAX film that can do that experience justice. It's life changing to be travel there at those enormous speeds and to see the continent at a single glance to look out into the distance and see the enormity of the universe is just crazy.

Scott Parazynski:

My last space walk as we were starting to talk about, was an unscripted, unplanned repair of a live solar panel. Unfortunately, this solar panel had been damaged in some way and probably because the space junk, orbital debris that had hit one of the guide wires in this panel, and it was our job to relocate this solar panel from the top of the space station out to the very tip of it, and unfurl these enormous solar wings. As this solar panel was being unfurled, it was noted that it was getting snagged. Something was preventing it from deploying properly. And what I love about NASA is just its capacity to take these daunting, seemingly impossible challenges and find elegant, almost simple solutions to fix them.

Scott Parazynski:

It took NASA engineers on the ground about 72 hours to come up with this plan to send a spacewalking astronaut, me, along with my buddy Doug Wheelock, to go out and repair the solar panel. To cut out this piece of guide wire that had interrupted the deployment and then put in these, we call them cuff links. I guess cuff links for giants. It's a piece of wire about five feet in length that we'd had to fashion with supplies inside the space station. Sort of an Apollo 13 situation where we had to build the repairs with the supplies that we had on board. We couldn't go to the local hardware store and get a solar ray repair kit, we had to build it in place. Low and behold, this repair worked beautifully. I had 45-minute one-way commute to work out at the very tip of the space station and just a God's eye view of the space shuttle, the space station complex. I remember looking down at the Himalayas and the Great Barrier Reef. And then to have this repair go so well, it was a real triumph for the entire time.

Alex (Host):

That's just absolutely incredible. Just amazing. Remind me again, how many missions in was it that, that happened?

Scott Parazynski:

Me personally?

Alex (Host):

Yeah.

Scott Parazynski:

It was my fifth and final flight into space. This was in October or November of 2007, at the tail end of the space station assembly, and the mission was called STS-120. That's their 120th space shuttle mission.

Alex (Host):

Absolutely incredible. Even just reminding myself of some of your personal astronaut stats, I think this is correct. I hope it's correct because it's from the NASA website, so please blame them, not me if I get these wrong. That you spent eight weeks in space in total, you did 47 hours during seven spacewalks.

Scott Parazynski:

Right.

Alex (Host):

And your total travel distance is 23 million miles.

Scott Parazynski:

That is correct, all good stats. Yep.

Alex (Host):

I can breathe a sigh of relief. One job is done. That's just absolutely phenomenal. Of all of those incredible experiences in space, is there anything where you look back on and is there anything basically you just can't forget that's always with you even if things get challenging? Or is it just everything that you've done do you think?

Scott Parazynski:

Well, what I remember most actually are my crew mates. The shared experience of this out-of-body experience that you shared with wonderful people. You spend one to two years in very intensive training with a crew. They become an extended family. That family extends to the instructors and flight controllers that we work with very, very closely. I had these strong bonds with my crew mates. In terms of the visceral kinds of memories that I have, many of them stem from the launches of course, but especially the spacewalks. Getting out in this rarefied air, in fact, the vacuum of space. No air whatsoever, but just having this God's eye view back on all of humanity.

Scott Parazynski:

The planet is incredibly beautiful and it can't be really captured in emulsion on a film. But then when you couple it with the fact that you're floating there, you're flying at these extraordinary speeds and you're seeing a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes, with this full spectrum of light coming up from behind the Earth limb, you see the planet without boundaries or dots on the map that depict cities, but just a confluence of humanity and nature. And I think it impacts everyone very profoundly. At a minimum you come back an environmentalist to some degree. You want to do everything you possibly can to preserve our planet.

Scott Parazynski:

Sadly, many of the things that are most noticeable about our planet from space are generated by humans. You can see bilge dumping in the ocean, jet contrails, deforestation, forest fires, soot along the Trans-Siberian Railway. I remember seeing that. But by and large, I think that we're doing a relatively good job as stewards of our planet, but I think it would be incredibly powerful to have more and more people have the same opportunity that I have to see our planet from space. Especially, if we could get some of our political leaders or decision-makers to see what's happening to our planet from that vantage point. Both from an environmental perspective and I think also from an international diplomacy perspective. I think if more nation's leaders could see their homeland from space, the concept of war I think would be untenable.

Alex (Host):

I'm sure just on that point, as an entrepreneur yourself obviously, what are your views on what's happening with commercial space flights and entrepreneurs like say, Elon Musk and SpaceX? And the new developments that they've made in rocket architecture and science.

Scott Parazynski:

It's extraordinary. These are the barnstorming years of commercial human space flights. Elon Musk is really taking a shrewd business approach to the space environment. How can we reduce the cost of a pound to orbit by 10X or 100X? That's how you scale businesses. Rather than the business model that has existed in the space program to date where it's large government contractors, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson on your side of the ocean, are looking at ways to make access to space much more cost-effective such that we can bring not just a few hundred government astronauts up into space over the last 50 plus years. They will probably be bringing 500 astronauts a month to space in another five or 10 years. Really trying to scale and I think that's incredibly exciting. It's a wonderful thing for our planet.

Scott Parazynski:

I'm really keen on Elon Musk's vision to colonize Mars. In fact, he's building these enormous rockets that he purports will be able to take 100 people on a one-way trip to the red planet, which even five or 10 years ago would've been thought as just crazy talk but, it's something that actually very well could happen in the next 15 or 20 years. I just get really, really excited when I think about the promise for our future.

Alex (Host):

Yeah, absolutely. It's been remarkable what some private companies and also NASA have been doing with the new technologies that are driving some of these, what may seem like unattainable goals forward, and it reflects quite nicely on what we see in the entrepreneurial space. A lot of goals or dreams can seem very out of reach, but actually if you put together a plan and you really go for it, that you can make them become a reality even if it is through a significant amount of hard work.

Scott Parazynski:

Indeed, yeah. As an entrepreneur, what is your risk tolerance and how resilience are you? Those are essential attributes. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have all been extremely successful in other facets of their lives and always wanted to pursue travel to space. They've got risk tolerance, they're incredibly resilient and it's going to happen. I think it's really inspirational.

Alex (Host):

Again, looking back, what do you think some of the biggest challenges for you were when you were on the space station or on a spacewalk that you maybe haven't necessarily predicted?

Scott Parazynski:

One of my mentors, his name is Dr. Story Musgrave. Also a physician-astronaut and a pioneering spacewalking astronaut. He actually led the first Hubble servicing mission that gave Hubble its eyes back and allowed us to see the deep reaches of our universe on a mission called STS-61. It was a really audacious flight. He was one of my spacewalking mentors. He would always tell me, "You know, Scott, the only think expected about EVA," extra vehicular activity space walking, "is the unexpected." That has really stuck with me. In fact, I use that mindset in everything that I do. Look at the world that we live in today. How no one could have envisioned that a virus that originated half a world away would shut down the world economy, would have the devastation that it has had. I always had that in my playbook. The only thing expected is the unexpected more generally speaking. Every spacewalk that I took, there were things that would crop up that we hadn't trained for that had never been predicted.

Scott Parazynski:

When you're working in environments like that where the temperature extremes are 500 degrees within one orbit of the plant, you're working in a vacuumous space where lubricants don't really behave in the same way as they would on Earth. Tolerance is with pieces of hardware that were built... Some in Russia, some in Europe, some in the U.S., some in Japan, some in Canada, and they meet for the very first time in space, unexpected things do happen. You just have to be nimble. I had a number of experiences like that. The most significant of course was the solar ray repair that I talked about. By and large, the training that we had allowed us to adapt and ultimately be successful.

Alex (Host):

I think just to emphasize for anybody listening, that particular story that you're talking about, repairing the solar ray, I think I'm still correct in saying that's still considered one of the most challenging, dangerous, EVAs ever performed because of how you were parched and how you were having to do it. Was that something that crossed your mind when it needed doing? Or was it just one of those where you have to get out and do it basically?

Scott Parazynski:

Well, it was rather extraordinary to go out and work on the solar panel. There are times in life when you have to accept a higher degree of risk for a greater possibility of reward. We needed the power from that solar panel that had been damaged to allow us to ultimately launch European and Japanese modules that were next in the International Space Station assembly sequence. It was very important that we figure out a way to salvage the solar panel if we could. Otherwise, it meant going out on a contingency spacewalk and throwing it away, this billion-dollar solar panel, and then potentially not being able to take advantage of these other modules. Yes, it was certainly very much front and center in my mind as we went out to do this repair.

Scott Parazynski:

I remember Paolo Nespoli from Italy, an Italian astronaut, was guiding me through the procedures and I was on the way out to the solar panel on this ungainly, 90-foot long robotic arm to repair the solar panel. And he's reading me all the cautions and warnings and alerts that I should be cognoscente of as I was doing the repair that was about to unfold. And if I keep an eye out for arching, the solar panel would become damaged and I might see some arching electricity near the solar panel and I couldn't have any direct contact with any part of my spacesuit, lest there could be an electrocution or a fire within my suit. And all these dooms days sorts of things were read out to me and I said, "Wow, Paolo. Thanks a lot for all those warnings." And he said, "Wait a second, I'm only halfway done," and then he continued.

Scott Parazynski:

First and foremost, our goal was to be safe. To make it a roundtrip. As I like to say as a mountaineer, I'm a mountain climber as well and it's not about attaining the summit, it's about making sure that you come back. We had a very well thought out plan on how to do this repair within having any direct physical contact with the solar panel. I had all these different tools to keep me at a safe distance while putting in these cuff links or sutures across the solar panel. But if it had not looked promising, if we tried to do the repair and things just weren't behaving, the plan had been to knock it off, to pull me back into the airlock and we would go up the next day or the day after with a plan C.

Scott Parazynski:

I think when you set out to do something especially challenging, it's important to have a well thought out plan, to take advantage of every member of the team, and to really have a clear sense of what success was. And success was making sure that everyone came back inside after the end of the spacewalk. It would have been golden to get the repair done, and thankfully we were successful and we had golden success in getting the repair done as well.

Alex (Host):

It's absolutely amazing and I think equally as amazing, which you've just eluded to is that you're an explorer not just in space, but on our planet as well. Am I correct in saying that you retired from your astronaut duties in 2009 and in the same year, that's when you stood on top of Everest?

Scott Parazynski:

That's right. I tried the year before 2008 while still an astronaut to go climb the mountain and ended up with a severe back injury. Ended up having a neurosurgeon do my back as opposed to an orthopedist. I'm sorry about that.

Alex (Host):

[crosstalk 00:48:51] No worries.

Scott Parazynski:

But after having microdiscectomy, went back the following year after having left the space program and was successful in topping out on Everest in really a wonderful sense of accomplishment. I think the things that come to us the most difficult end up meaning the most to us, and the fact that I wasn't successful in topping it out the first year and having to struggle back the following year to finally make it was just a euphoric life experience.

Alex (Host):

I can't even imagine. Obviously, I can't even imagine the disappointment of not being able to summit that first time in 2008, but then to go back and achieve it must have been absolutely fantastic. You had been doing a lot of mountaineering for a while around your astronaut training. Is that right?

Scott Parazynski:

That's right. I'd been climbing in the Andes, the Alaska Range, the Rockies, a little bit in the Alps as well, but this is my first huge mountain in the Himalayas. Just the fulfillment of another boyhood dream of mine, which is to get up into that rarefied air. I'd read every book about not only the successes on Everest and Annapurna and K2, but also the failures. And that served as a great guidebook of what not to do on Everest. I used the same sort of mindset and training program that I'd used for a space flight to get ready for climbing that big mountain.

Alex (Host):

I was going to ask you, how do you find the training compared to what you'd experienced previously?

Scott Parazynski:

There's a technical aspect to climbing of course, and I'd been climbing since my teens. I'd honed my skills over many, many years getting ready for a big mountain like that. The physical and the mental preparation is quite intense. And living at sea level here in Houston, it's not easy to be a high-altitude mountaineer. What I did was ultra-endurance types of training. I don't know if you've ever done spin classes before, but they're quit intense. A short bust, you have 50 to 60-minute classes. I would do two, three, even four classes back to back and I would press my limits. I got to the point where I could really understand my red line. How far can I press myself physically without actually hurting myself? You need to be able to ascertain the difference between, hey, this is a healthy degree of exhaustion versus wow, you're really doing harm here. Being able to press yourself right up to that red line and sustain yourself for long periods of time, that was really great mental preparation for the rigors of going on Everest.

Alex (Host):

Again, just a phenomenal achievement and again, I'm going to make you not undersell yourself in any of these amazing achievements but I think you again might be correct in saying you were the first astronaut to stand on top of Everest. Is that correct?

Scott Parazynski:

That's right. There is a second now, a good friend of mine, Maurizio Cheli, a European, an Italian astronaut. In fact, one of my classmates. And he summited I believe two years ago. There are now two of us who have both been in space and have stood on top of the world. Hopefully, there'll be more in the not-too-distant future. Hopefully climbing and just travel in general with become possible again.

Alex (Host):

I see, and I think just on this final bit of I suppose you as an explorer, the other [inaudible 00:53:11] that always just fascinates me is you've also been to the world's youngest lava lake in Nicaragua. What possessed you to do that?

Scott Parazynski:

Well, again, we talked about this at the very beginning of our chat here. By going into extraordinary environments, it challenges us as innovators as well. Not only to sustain life, but to extract science from these dynamic places. And I was invited by Sam Cossman who had gathered together a team of explorers to go visit Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua, the youngest lava lake in the world as you point out. And the goal was to implant a censor array not only at the crater rim, but down adjacent the lava lake. And the goal for this was to collect an enormous data set that would allow us to essentially tease out signatures of eruptive activity. If we would give the citizens of Managua, Nicaragua, where two million people live about 15 minutes away, an early warning that, "Hey, the Masaya Volcano's about to erupt," you could save many, many lives. The goal was essentially to put this volcano online to create an ability not only for professional volcanologists, but citizen scientists to tease through the data to create mathematical models with the new tools that we have in machine learning and so on to save lives.

Scott Parazynski:

It was a wonderful life experience and I would tell you it's actually the scariest thing I've ever done. And the reason I say that is because when you go climbing a big mountain or go out on a spacewalk or go on a deep-ocean dive, you can control many of the variables in those environments. How should I say this? There are environmental constraints, and hardware constraints, and teamwork constraints that you can control and go in with a relative degree of knowledge and safety. But when you're around a lava lake, it's such an unpredictable dynamic environment. And I remember when I repelled down to the lowest level of this crater, 1200 feet down and we were about to hike up to the shoreline of this lava lake. And there were lava bombs being ejected and flying over our heads, I realized that I had very little control over this thing changing at any instant. We went about our business as quickly as we could. We implanted the censor station, we took some incredible video, and we got the heck out of there.

Scott Parazynski:

As we started this chat, Alex, I think it is really an exciting time to be alive where we can apply augmented reality, machine learning, and robotics and other new technologies to essentially put our planet online to give ourselves early warnings for all sorts of natural disasters. People will be able to use the same sorts of tools to make incredible advances in healthcare. Our bodies are spitting out all sorts of information that we're not really listening to yet, but I think in the next five or 10 years, we'll have the ability to get way out in front of disease and then of course, in the realm of spaceflight, to be able to explore further with many more people. We just have to get past this current pandemic and heal as a planet I guess.

Alex (Host):

Absolutely, and I guess just to start wrapping things up, I think it reflects back quite nicely to what we were talking at the top of the conversation, which was you as an inventor and your current company. If doing all those incredible things wasn't hard enough, you then decided for more self harm, which is to start your own company [crosstalk 00:57:40]. And this is one of the ways that we connected and I think what you're doing at the moment is absolutely amazing. It'd be great if we finish up having a little bit of a conversation around this.

Scott Parazynski:

You bet. Well, my current company, Fluidity Technologies is centered around really interpreting human intent and mapping that to a three-dimensional world. Essentially, to make for example, drone flight, almost a subconscious act. The devices that we've developed make drone flight incredibly intuitive, such that a five-year-old can fly the most complex maneuvers within five minutes. The same sorts of technologies will very soon allow us to fly electric flying cars or helicopters with incredible ease. ROVs under the ocean, industrial cranes and robotics augmented in virtual reality. And ultimately, my goal is to truly enable telesurgery. To be able to operate a surgical robot say from here in Houston Texas, and deliver the same quality outcome in Sub-Saharan Africa or in Rural Nepal as we have here in Houston or London. That may sound like science fiction, but it's really not that far off when you can really interpret human intent if the surgeon or operator tactile feedback as to what's happening out at the tip of your instrument, and to be able to do this over long distances because we'll very soon have internet connectivity around the world without exception. I'm very, very excited about that future.

Alex (Host):

This is all using the haptic components of some of the things that you'd started to use on your spaceflights. Is that correct?

Scott Parazynski:

That's correct. You're working in three dimensions as we do robotic arms flying spacecraft and working in VR simulations over many years. It was the world catalyst for this innovation.

Alex (Host):

It's been just as always an absolute pleasure speaking with you.

Scott Parazynski:

Likewise, yeah.

Alex (Host):

Just to finally finish things off, I always ask everyone on the podcast just to give an example of what I call a human performance here of someone who you find inspiring. It could from any walk of life. We can finish up with that and then I'll also just plug obviously, your book, which I think everyone should read. Which I've now read for, I'll say two and a half times because I got halfway through on a flight and then actually lost a version of your book. [crosstalk 01:00:37] I now have a nice, brand new copy, which is excellent.

Scott Parazynski:

Awesome.

Alex (Host):

[crosstalk 01:00:43] The Sky Below. Although I guess [inaudible 01:00:46] I bought it twice, which is good for your book.

Scott Parazynski:

Well, thank you for that. Yeah, I appreciate that. That's good. Residuals. Let's see. My human performance hero, there are several that I could turn to but, I think the one that's most apt for this particular podcast, I'll mention Sir Roger Bannister. I was a middle-distance runner in high school and became an 800 and 1500-meter runner in my freshman year of college. I was fascinated and inspired by the way he took an engineering or scientific approach to tackling what had in his age been seen as an instrumentable challenge, which was breaking the four-minute mile. And what he did as you're probably aware is he broke down the mile into attainable pieces and he decided, well, I'm going to run at world-record pace, do a series of sprints a hundred meters at a time, and run at that world-record pace, and then tie them together longer and longer segments. Such that he essentially trained himself to run at this extraordinary pace to break that instrumentable four-minute mile pace.

Scott Parazynski:

That's something that both from an athletic perspective, but also from a more global innovation perspective really inspires me to this day. I'd recommend reading his book. I'm forgetting the name of his classic book. I have to Google that but he would be at the top of the list for me.

Alex (Host):

Again, just a fantastic achievement and thank you again for picking a Brit [crosstalk 01:02:58]. Listen, it's been an absolute pleasure as always catching up with you and I'm very glad you indulge me in asking some very nerdy and geeky questions around your backstory, which I know you've recounted a million times before to everybody. But it certainly never ever loses any magic when I either read about it or hear anything that you've done. I think it's just absolutely unbelievably amazing.

Scott Parazynski:

Thank you.

Alex (Host):

Just to completely finish off, where can people find out a little bit about Fluidity or connect to yourself.

Scott Parazynski:

Thank you. First off, Sir Roger Bannister's book is called The Four-Minute Mile. Of course it is aptly named. My website is parazynski.com, P-A-R-A-Z-Y-N-S-K-I. Great way to stay connected to me. I also have Instagram and Twitter feeds, @AstroDocScott, and I hope your listeners will check out The Sky Below as well. It's available in Kindle as well as in print through Amazon.

Alex (Host):

Absolutely, and I think just to finish off with all your achievements, my personal favorite is that I think again, I'm correct in saying, please correct me if I'm wrong, but you've got one of the most famous astronaut selfies ever taken.

Scott Parazynski:

Actually, that's been stated many, many times. There is a great shot of just my gold visor and this reflection of the International Space Station in it, but actually my buddy, Doug Wheelock took that photo. I cannot claim credit for that selfie. Sorry.

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