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When rookie astronauts go on their first spacewalk, it’s common to hear them oohing and aahing when they go out the hatch.
Being awestruck may diminish with experience, but the sense of wonder never does, said astronaut Scott Parazynski.
Parazynski will be inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 14. A veteran of five space shuttle flights, he has logged more than eight weeks in space, including 47 hours during seven spacewalks. One of his spacewalks is celebrated for being the most dangerous and difficult ever carried out.
“It was quite a sporty day out there,” he recalled of that task.
Parazynski is a University Explorer and a professor of practice within both the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering and the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.
Spacewalking is like nothing else, he said.
“You’ve actually moved off the planet,” he said. “You’re sort of disconnected from it to a degree. You look out the window and see this beautiful planet floating below. It’s a surreal, out-of-body experience to know that all of humanity and everyone you’ve ever met in your life is below you on planet Earth. It’s a strange mental perspective to have. You’re drawn out to the cosmos, but you’re always drawn back to the beautiful blue planet below you.”
With nothing but the black void of the universe below their feet, some people, especially on their first spacewalk, have a sense of falling, Parazynski said. Even astronauts, despite being highly trained and highly focused on mission tasks, can’t resist succumbing to the wow factor every so often.
“Every once in a while you look up and there’s the Great Barrier Reef above you,” Parazynski said. “Then you get back to work.”
There are some downsides. Lack of gravity makes life more difficult. “You can’t just put things down and expect them to be there,” Parazynski said, adding that everything is Velcroed down in place. If not, “you’ll find it in the cabin air cleaner in a couple of days because of the air flow.”
There will be a fitting twist to Parazynski’s induction. The night before the ceremony, about 400 guests will dine at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida beneath an enormous Saturn V, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built.
Parazynski’s father was a Rocketdyne engineer who worked on designing and testing the F-1 engines for the Saturn V.
“My father worked on the Apollo program when I was very young,” Parazynski said, imbuing him with the passion to become an astronaut.
Now Parazynski will join the ranks of astronauts who have made significant accomplishments in space or contributions to the advancement of space exploration. They include John Glenn, Jim Lovell, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Walter Schirra, Michael Collins, Donald K. (Deke) Slayton, Fred Haise and L. Gordon Cooper Jr.
“It came as a surprise out of left field, but I’m really thrilled to be included amongst all the folks I’ve looked up to for so many years,” Parazynski said. He flew with Glenn as the senator’s crewmate and personal physician in 1998 on a Discovery mission when Glenn became the oldest person to fly in space.
The event supports the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which awards $10,000 scholarships to students at universities around the country to help defray educational costs in the pursuit of science, technology, engineering and math fields. The foundation was created more than 30 years ago by the surviving six members of the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronaut corps.
Parazynski said he misses the teamwork the most, “working with America’s best and brightest on things that are of great consequence. The sense of purpose was amazing. It was a dream come true.”
In October 2007, Parazynski led the spacewalk team on a highly complex space station assembly flight, during which he performed four spacewalks.
His fourth and final spacewalk is widely regarded as one of the most challenging and dangerous ever performed. He was positioned by a 90-foot robotic boom farther than any orbiting astronaut had ever ventured from the safety of the airlock. It was an unplanned emergency repair to a fully energized but torn solar array wing. He spent 45 minutes getting to the tip of the space station.
The array couldn’t be powered down. Everything on Parazynski’s suit had to be specially insulated so electricity couldn’t arc into it. Space suits contain 100 percent oxygen. He could have been electrocuted if he touched a solar cell. The other risk was how far out he went. Mission planners usually want spacewalkers to be able to execute an emergency return to the airlock within 30 minutes of a failure. If his suit failed, he wouldn’t be able to make it back in time.
Mission Control and the crew agreed a higher degree of risk had to be accepted. In the related photo on this page, Parazynski’s feet appear clamped into the boom. They weren’t. He had to concentrate to keep them wedged in.
He attached five devices called “cuff links” on the array, which kept the torn section folded and prevented further tearing. The feat has been called the “Apollo 13 moment” of the space shuttle and space station eras because of the tremendous coordinated effort in orbit and on the ground by Mission Control and other engineering experts.
“That was quite unusual,” Parazynski said.
“It’s the ultimate human exploration experience, to float above your planet, and see it from that perspective and to go on a spacewalk,” he said. “I really miss that and I wish I hadn’t had to hang up my space suit. It was time for me to get out of the way of the new recruits and to move on to other things.”
Top image: Scott Parazynski repairing a damaged solar array on during the 2007 STS-120 mission, considered the most dangerous spacewalk ever. Photos by NASA
The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.