All of these titles apply to Scott Parazynski. As a Blue Marble Exploration Explorer-in-Residence, Scott keeps us thinking about the diverse challenges humans face in exploring extreme environments.
Over his 17-year career as a NASA Astronaut, Scott completed 5 Space Shuttle Missions and conducted 7 spacewalks. Mission highlights included participating in the first US-Russian spacewalk and serving as Senator John Glenn’s crewmate and personal physician. During Scott’s last mission in 2007, he ventured farther from the airlock than any other astronaut to perform a risky repair, a challenging spacewalk that was likened to an “Apollo 13 moment.”
In addition to exploring the extreme limits of space, Scott is an accomplished mountaineer, summiting Mt. Everest in 2009, as well as a lifelong SCUBA diver, conducting a NASA-sponsored expedition to the world’s highest lake in the Andes in 2005. With academic training at Stanford and Harvard, Scott’s expertise- perhaps unsurprisingly- focuses on human performance in stressful environments. Currently, Scott serves as Chief Medical Officer and Director of University of Texas Medical Branch Health Center for Polar Medical Operations focused on the US Antarctic Program, and as Chairman of the Board of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.
Getting to Know Scott Parazynski
- Why do you explore? How are you continually inspired to explore?
As the son of a rocket scientist – my Dad helped design the Saturn V boosters that first took men to the moon in the late 60’s and early 70’s – I was fascinated by everything to do with exploration as a kid. All the books I read had something to do with pressing the boundaries of human experience, from Lewis and Clark to Cousteau, Sir Roger Bannister to Yuri Gagarin, Mallory and Irvine to John Glenn and the Mercury 7. I wanted to be the first man to set bootprints down on Mars, and was bound and determined to make it come true.
Although the space program took some different paths in the subsequent years and I didn’t get a chance to visit the Red Planet, I certainly have no regrets at the way things transpired! There’s so much more to discover, on, over and under our planet’s surface – and even within the human body itself.
- Is there one expedition in the past or future that you consider to be the culmination of your career?
My best day on the job – ever – was supporting the repair of a live solar array during Space Shuttle mission STS-120, while docked to the International Space Station. It’s a lengthy but exciting story to tell some other time, but being a part of a team that took on such a difficult task and succeeded, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
In terms of future goals, I’d certainly love to visit Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of our oceans. The technical and operational challenge of getting there is enormous. While 12 men walked on the moon, only two expeditions have successfully visited, and we have so much more to learn about our own oceans as we develop the technologies to repeatedly visit and characterize our uncharted ocean depths.
- Most people think explorers are daredevils and risk-takers- how do you perceive risk?
I approach risk with great respect. Although many would look at my life’s endeavors and conclude I’m a daredevil of sorts, nothing could be further from the truth. I recognize and prepare for risk in earnest. I do my best to understand the environment I’ll be working in, the technology I’ll need to rely upon, and then mentally and physically prepare myself to handle whatever might possibly go wrong when there. There’s an old adage that there are bold pilots and old pilots, but no old, bold pilots. The same can be said for astronauts, mountaineers and other high risk pursuits. Those with longevity probably took similar approaches, else were extremely lucky!
- What are the greatest personal or professional challenges you face as an explorer?
I’m naturally inquisitive and creative, and seek challenge in new and exciting environments like those found in space travel, the high mountains, the polar regions, in exotic lands and deep beneath our oceans. The greatest challenges are sometimes calming the nerves of one’s family and friends when heading off to the next big adventure…
- Do you have one piece of advice for anyone of any age who dreams of exploring space or land or sea?
Read all you can about those that came before you, and then set out on your own path. I’d certainly avoid the naysayers who’d imply that the path is too tough, or that there’s nothing left to explore or discover. Those without vision will hold you back, and they are just plain wrong… Finally, don’t get overly fixated on the summit, whether that summit is a true summit or just a lofty goal of yours, instead focusing on a series of steps that will eventually lead you to where you want to go. Any lofty goal can be intimidating and daunting when you first set out, but taking it one day at a time, one figurative rope length at a time, even a footstep at a time, makes it possible to achieve with tenacity and preparation.