<#comment>#comment>Scott Parazynski tells us what it’s like when your job is out of this world…
Did you always want to be an astronaut?
Oh yes – ever since I could walk and talk. One of my most treasured photos is one my folks took of me in front of the Nasa hangar where they were building the first stage of the enormous Saturn V rockets that sent men to the moon. My father was a rocket scientist working for Boeing back in those days so I grew up in and around the space programme, and I vividly recall going to the launch of Apollo 9. Later, I remember Apollo 11 – I was seven years old and got to stay up very late that night and watch the first Moon walk on a grainy black-and-white TV set.
How did you get to be an astronaut?
I didn’t have a clear sense of it until I was accepted into the Nasa space programme. I always thought it was such a far-off, unattainable goal. I was in medical school when I first picked up the application in 1991 and I figured I was a long shot, but I was, thankfully, selected the first time. I became an astronaut in 1992 and then you’ve only just begun. There’s lots of training, like how you live in space and how you operate the space shuttle systems, and it was about two years after that, I had my first chance to fly on a shuttle mission. After 17 years, I retired from Nasa in 2009, to move into the field of medical development.
How many astronauts have there been?
I believe that the number is about 550 and most of us have known each other for some time, although they’ve hired some new folks recently. When we meet up we typically talk about what’s going to come next. Are we really going to Mars?
And, are we?
Well, right now Nasa seems to be a bit adrift in terms of its strategic vision, although I do believe America’s long-term goal is to send crews to Mars. And by the looks of it, it could happen in my lifetime. Soon there will be manned missions to Mars and hopefully a colony established there, too.
You’ve been on five space shuttle missions. How scary is a launch?
Well, you’re very focused on monitoring different systems on the flight deck, although on a couple of flights I was down on mid-deck, in ‘coach’, and I had no responsibility whatsoever – that’s when you do have a bit more time to think about the 3.2 million kilograms of thrust that have to be vectored in perfectly the right way. But we’re more focused than nervous as we’re very well trained and there are a lot of things we can do if there are malfunctions.
What about motion sickness?
There’s no way to predict who will get sick in space. Many people who feel motion sickness in a car feel fine in space; conversely we’ve had military test pilots who never get sick when flying and get violently ill. About 40 per cent of first-time flyers will have some degree of motion sickness, although I never had a problem, fortunately.
Does weightlessness ever lose its novelty?
No, in fact it gets better with each flight. But it’s not all easy. If you don’t tether every tool (while working on a machine) they’re going to float away. We use magnetic boards and duct tape to ensure that doesn’t happen.
What experiments are the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) doing that couldn’t be done on Earth?
There are different types of experiments that can only be done in space because you take away the universal constant of gravity. That allows us to look at a number of things – from human physiology to plant growth to looking at how flames propagate in weightlessness, which will help develop better spacecraft in the future. We study the Earth’s environment and ozone distribution to understand our home planet, and look to the planets and stars beyond to understand how we got here – I could go on and on.
What do you do when you have some downtime up there?
Looking out the window is the ultimate treat. For example, the turquoise seas around The Bahamas are beyond description. Seeing the Himalayas is incredibly powerful, and when you’re close to the poles, a glimpse of the aurora is a spectacular sight.
The UAE has recently announced that it is entering the space arena – where do you think the attention will be focused?
I think it’s going to be very interested in sub-orbital space. The UAE has the means, it is a very educated, progressive place and I think there are some real opportunities there. I’d love to vist to talk about the promise of this new industry and the potential role the country may play.
Which space film got it just right?
Gravity. I saw it at the cinema and the visuals were just fantastic, but some of the things alluded to were quite off. The collisions were very Hollywood and the fact that the space shuttle, the ISS and the Tiangong Space Station were in a co-elliptic orbit within 100 miles from each other couldn’t be further from the truth. But that’s OK, I thought the movie did a very good job of suspending disbelief even for someone like me, who’s actually been there.