When I was younger, I remember sitting down listening to my grandfather's stories of cowboys and Native Americans, elephants and airplanes, only to think, "Grandpa, this sounds fake." Who knows if they were.
Reading Scott Parazynski's memoir, The Sky Below, made my grandfather's grand tales seem much more ordinary. In his book, Parazynski's life unfolds across chapters through detailed retellings. You read on as he attempts to conquer some of life's greatest summits, finding family, love, and adventure along the way.
Houstonia spoke with Paraskynski to get answers to some of our burning questions before his signing at Brazos Bookstore Aug. 7 at 7 p.m.
What was it during your childhood that really solidified your dream to become an astronaut?
The first thing, I think, was that I had a front row seat in the space program, being brought up in and around the program with my dad as an engineer supporting the program, and I think the other thing is just my parent's adventurous spirit. The fact that we did pick up and move to some incredibly exciting places around the world, I had a sense of venture and exploration early on. I just wanted to be part of something larger than life.
Climbing mountains, going to space, scuba diving. These all are things that test the limit of the human body and really all involve getting as far above (or below) the ground as possible. Is there a reason for this fascination with extremes?
Well yes, that challenge of it and also the fact that by going to extraordinary environments, it forces us to think in unique ways to mitigate risks. Being an inventor—helping develop technologies that would make it safer for people to climb mountains, or go under the oceans or up into space or into volcanoes. It tests not only our human endurance but also our human ingenuity.
You also flew with John Glenn—the first American to orbit the Earth—as his personal physician when he decided to return to space at 77. What was that like?
Gosh, he was, you know, such a wonderful human being and without a doubt one of our greatest Americans. I grew up, of course, idolizing him like every kid in my generation did in wanting to become an astronaut. I just never grew out of that dream, I guess. It was just so extraordinary to then be assigned to fly in space with him, share outer space with him and also to call him a friend. I feel so, so fortunate.
Do you remember any shenanigans you and other astronauts might have pulled off?
Oh yeah. My favorite one, I talk about it in the book, is a prank we pulled on John Glenn on launch morning. It was also on Pedro Duque as well — he was the first Spaniard to go to space, and we nicknamed him Juan. So we had Juan and John. Back when John flew, he didn't really have room to stretch out, he was basically wearing his space craft. So we teased him that he was a space rookie, which he didn't really care for that much, but he was a good sport about it. On launch morning, all the veteran astronauts had made these special green boarding passes to tuck away in our suits. So we ride up to the launch pad that morning, and we are greeted by the SWAT team officer at the launch pad who said 'Boarding passes please.' All the veteran astronauts beautifully handed over our green boarding passes, and poor John and Juan, they were panicked looking through every zipper and pocket on their suits thinking they weren't going to space because they didn't have a boarding pass.
You moved to Houston when you joined NASA. Do you still live here after joining the private sector?
I still live in Houston, in Rice Village. It's one of the greatest cities on Earth, I think. I love being a Houstonian, the ability to go to some of the greatest restaurants on Earth, the best museums and to travel anywhere from there. There are great people from not only the Space program but oil and gas and medicine—such great innovation. Houston really has it all.
I read that during Katrina you did a bit to help out, can you tell us about what that was like?
It was an extraordinary time in Houston. The city poured its heart out for those who were displaced by Katrina, and I had the ability to help as a physician, so I volunteered very early on to work at the Astrodome and then the Reliant Center. There were literally thousands of people who were living without any of their belongings, they had serious medical issues. I ended up taking a couple weeks off of work and volunteering my time there. But I saw the incredible good nature of the city of Houston. People bringing supplies, toys, books, water, food, snacks to people in their time of greatest need, and I truly fell in love with the city of Houston at that point. There were kids who brought their favorite toys to kids who had none, and it was really heartwarming. That was definitely a life-changing experience for me.
After your final flight, you were determined to scale Mt. Everest, even after one failed attempt where your back was ravaged from your trips to space. Why was that so important to you?
Well, it was something that I had dreamed of and talked about since I was a little kid. It was always a far-off goal. When I took my first trip into space in 1994, I actually took this beautiful photograph looking straight down on the summit of Mt. Everest. and that photograph sat above my desk for years as a sort of inspiration and day dreaming, wondering what it would look like to physically stand there on top of Mt. Everest. I was a very skilled climber at that point, so when I failed the summit in 2008, I realized that I obviously had a medical issue that needed to be dealt with. But after I got healthy again, I realized I'd be far better off trying to summit the following year than 30 years later when I'd be much older.
When I was reading the book, it seems like your trip to Mt. Everest, where you joined moon rock with mountain rock, almost directly led you to your wife, Mini. Would you attribute that to good luck or fate, or how do you really comprehend that?
It was the most remarkable to meet my soulmate. I can't even imagine how good fortune smiled on me in this way, but I had gotten clearance from NASA to borrow a moon rock to pay tribute to Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong, and it turns out that Mini, who was carrying this special committee that appropriates NASA's astro-materials, had agreed with her committee that there should be a loan of this Apollo 11 tiny lunar sample, as it could be beneficial for public outreach and for education. A year after the trip, she sent me a note on Facebook, of all things, and she wondered how my climb was, [and asked], 'and where is the moon rock?' I actually never gave it back. I did obviously give it back to NASA, but it is now resident aboard the International Space Station on a beautiful plaque that also contains one of the summit rocks that I brought back from Everest.
Of all your adventures, would you say space was most exciting?
Yes, absolutely. My best day on the job ever was being a part of the STS-120 crew and supporting that mission, and especially the solar array repair that I got to participate in with an amazing team of people. In fact, that was the real reason I wanted to write the book, to pay tribute to them first and foremost. Being part of something larger than life like that and to be successful is a great way to finish out my career as an astronaut.
Book signing Monday, Aug. 7, at 7 p.m. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet St. 713-523-0701. More info at brazosbookstore.com.