The astronaut and former U.S. Development Luge Team athlete spoke to Lake Placid’s fifth-and-sixth-grade classes Tuesday about his experiences with NASA. Parazynski has been with NASA for 17 years and has flown on five missions and done seven spacewalks.
In the fall of 2007, on a mission to the International Space Station, Parazynski did an unplanned, more-than-seven-hour spacewalk to repair a damaged solar panel array. Students watched a video of footage shot during this mission, which Parazynski said he considers the highlight of his career with NASA, thus far. After the videos, he fielded a multitude of questions from curious students, covering everything from how the body adapts to zero gravity to the basics of everyday life, like how to sleep and go to the bathroom in space.
Parazynski said that, although during each mission he was concentrating on the task at hand, the beauty of the experience did not escape him. He said he could see mountain ranges, forest fires in southern California, the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China.
“Every free second you want to look out the window,” he said. “The Himalayas just reach out and touch you. They’re enormous. On one of my spacewalks ... we flew through the northern lights. It was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen in my life. These wispy tendrils of light that come up for hundreds of miles and we just flew right through it.”
Parazynski has logged more than eight weeks in space and traveled more than 23 million miles. But long before he made a career of orbiting the Earth, he spent several winters in Lake Placid training to earn a spot on the Olympic luge team. From 1985 to 1988, he was with the development team, competing in Europe and Canada.
“I remember the Innsbruck Olympics in 76 and thought, ‘Wow, I would love to try that some day.’ It was so fast and so amazing I never thought I would have an opportunity to do it.”
But a few years later, while an undergraduate at Stanford University, he did get an opportunity. He responded to a flyer he saw on campus and attended a luge clinic. He was able to easily pass the physical fitness and agility test, maneuvering around an obstacle course of traffic cones on a luge sled on wheels.
“I just fell in love with the sport immediately,” he said.
Parazynski was invited back to Lake Placid for a week and ended up spending the rest of that winter and the next two winters training full time.
He came in ninth overall in the 1988 Olympic trials, an impressive finish for a relative newcomer to the sport. Unfortunately, only the top four finishers made the team. Soon after the 1988 Olympic trials, Parazynski left the sport to return to medical school full time, but said he can relate his early experiences with luge to his later ones as an astronaut.
“There’s a great correlation,” he said. “There are a lot of similarities. Keeping calm under pressure, that’s kind of what luge is all about. Keeping your wits about you as the world is screaming by. If you can rise to the occasion when it really counts, that says a lot.”
Parazynski now calls Houston home, but said it felt good to be back in Lake Placid this week.
“I look at the weather here and it brings back so many great memories of when I used to live and train here at the OTC,” he said. “The look and feel of downtown Lake Placid is the same. It’s a beautiful little town and it’s great to be back.”
Parazynski has a long list of accomplishments. He is also an avid mountain climber and has scaled some of the world’s tallest peaks, including Cerro Aconcagua. Last year he attempted to climb Mount Everest, but was thwarted by a back injury. He is also a SCUBA diver, pilot and a medical doctor. Parazynski, it seems, loves doing things that would scare the daylights out of most people. When asked by students on Tuesday whether he was ever scared while in space, he answered yes, but not in the way one might think.
“The first (mission), you’re just trying not to screw up multi-million dollar satellites and very expensive equipment,” he said. “If you were to make a mistake, you would be letting a lot of people down. I wanted to do a good job because I wanted to fly again.”
There is one thing, however, Parazynski admitted might scare him a little.
“Have you ever ridden in a skeleton (sled)?” he asked. “That just looks nuts.”
The hands of fifth-graders shot up following astronaut and former luger Scott Parazynski’s presentation Tuesday. A lengthy question-and-answer session with curious students followed.
Heather Sackett/Lake Placid News