This year I have been interviewing adventurous souls for my Grand Adventures project. It’s been a wonderful privilege for me, and I hope that you have enjoyed them too. I was so thrilled for my final interview to chat to Scott Parazynski. He’s climbed Everest, and he is an astronaut who has flown in space! That, I have always felt, is the greatest adventure of all. [A special thank you to Twitter: when I asked “does anyone know an astronaut?” I received several different contact details within minutes.] So, to wrap up this year of interviews, let’s “light the candle” and blast off with Scott… (Photos courtesy of NASA and/or Scott Parazynski.)
Alastair: It took me over four years to cycle round the world. What is your record time for a lap of the planet?
Scott: I really don’t like to brag, Alastair, but I too have circled the planet on a bike. On my first shuttle flight back in 1994 we had a bike ergometer on the flight desk, with the shuttle’s overhead windows much like a glass bottom boat. I pedalled one lap around the planet in 90 minutes, clicking in at 17,500 miles per hous. Sorry to burst your bubble…!
Alastair: Ha! You win! Saying “I dream of going to space” is a cliched, simplistic and utterly unrealistic thing that people often say. But you have actually done it. I’m curious what was the appeal? I have three guesses: the science, the intellectual challenge, and then the one from the old fast cars, fast jets era [of early space flight] of, “Light the candle and off we go!” Chuck Yeager macho adrenaline stuff. Where are you on that spectrum?
Scott: Well, I think the initial motivation for all explorers is the adventure of it. As a little kid, my father worked on the Apollo program. So I had model rockets and posters on the wall and dreamed of becoming an explorer myself, wanting to actually set the first boot prints down on Mars.
Although it didn’t turn out exactly like that, I was very fortunate to get a chance to fly in space on a number of occasions. I think what initially attracted me was just the audacious nature of breaking the bonds of gravity and seeing the planet from those altitudes and being in a place that very few could go.
I think that’s a common thread as an adventurer, going to a place that is difficult to get to, to see a place that is out of the ordinary. I love your idea of the microadventures. You don’t need to go all that far to get to places of beauty that are out of the ordinary.
What I like to do in Colorado is hike along ridge lines. They don’t even need to be huge mountains. Just to be running a ridge line and being in a place where there aren’t huge crowds of people, seeing things that I don’t see in my everyday life… That’s special. To get out and explore is at my core.
“I think what initially attracted me was just the audacious nature of breaking the bonds of gravity and seeing the planet from those altitudes and being in a place that very few could go.”
Alastair: On your website you say, “Great things in life are not ever going to be handed to you.” This is going to make me sound old now, but the youth of Britain are now reared on these celebrity TV programmes that give the impression of instant success and gratification. How many years was it from when you first began dreaming of space, to when you actually got up there?
Scott: Let’s see. I think I was five years old when I established I really wanted to fly in space. My first trip, I was 33 . . .
Alastair: That is a long apprenticeship! I suppose you have to really enjoy the process, not just the end product?
Scott: Absolutely! It’s a long road.
Alastair: I love the idea of going to space just from a naive, adventure point of view that it must be bloody exciting. That was why I wanted to talk to an astronaut. But to talk to an astronaut who’s also been up Everest, another great adventure, is just perfect for Adventure1000. What are the similarities between space and mountaineering. And what are the big differences?
“The vacuum of space is not that dissimilar from high on Everest.”
Scott: The similarities are the physical/mental preparation, the training, the equipment, actually. I remember leaving my tent at high camp, Camp Four, at 8000 meters, in the darkness. I was covered in protective clothing. I had a backpack on with an oxygen cylinder and a regulator. I had eye protection. I had a head lamp, big boots on, crampons. I had a waist harness with a lanyard that would help me eventually, up higher, get clipped onto fixed lines.
So when I crawled out the vestibule of the tent, I felt almost as if I was floating out of the hatch of the space shuttle or the international space station, because you’re really going out into the void. The vacuum of space is not that dissimilar from high on Everest. There’s not much atmosphere up there. It’s extremely cold.
It struck me that this was very similar to an EVA [extravehicular activity]. The physical threats are not dissimilar either. If you make the wrong decision in space, you could go floating away or not make it back into the air lock-in.
Similarly, if you don’t listen to your body, if the conditions change, if you just run into bad luck, bad things can happen on Summit Day on Everest, of course. There’s plenty of historical precedent for that. Certainly, the Summit Day on a big mountain is very much like the big day of floating out the hatch on the space walk.
There are a lot of dissimilarities as well though. When you’re in space or on a shuttle mission or any type of spacecraft, you feel the threat of the launch, in particular. It’s seven million pounds of thrust to get you off the planet and up to the space station.
So you know the launch is a very high-threat environment. But once you get up into space, you’re floating around. You’re wearing clothes like we’re wearing here today, just in short-sleeves. You don’t really appreciate the fact that on the other side of that thin aluminum hull is the vacuum of space. So you feel very comfortable and secure.
However, when you’re in the Himalayas or on any other big mountain, it’s very cold. There’s hypoxia. You’re very far away from any kind of rescue. You feel an element of threat all the time.
Alastair: I’m not referring to the magnificent, bonkers blast off phase here, but when you’re actually up in space where everything is micro-managed and deliberately, non-spontaneous. Does is still feel like an adventure up there?
Scott: It does. It’s an extraordinary place that I hope more and more people get a chance to experience. The experience of weightlessness, looking at your planet from that extraordinary perspective is, I think, life’s greatest adventure.
I think the barriers to entry will fall. More and more people will get a chance to go into space in the future. In fact, probably in 20 or 30 years from now, all of us will be astronauts. We’ll board a space plane at Heathrow and be in Tokyo in 45 minutes. That kind of scale, I think, is going to happen. I think it’s an exciting time to be alive.
Alastair: You mentioned the phrase, “Barrier to entry.” That’s precisely the basis of this Adventure1000 project, trying to show that adventure is achievable for normal people. Not going into space, of course, but making an expedition or journey feel more achievable.
I was really glad that during your space walk, amongst all those very difficult and important duties, you had time to just look around and think, “Wow. There’s Lake Titicaca. There’s the Trans Siberian.” That’s cool. That’s a nice perk of the job.
Scott: [laughing] It is. It’s the best perk of all! Yeah! You get really mired in the work you have to do, and it’s very expensive, of course, to get you up there. You have a serious job to do, but you have to savour those moments when you get them.
Alastair: Is real life an anticlimax for you? And, if not, please give me some wisdom, because I struggle from this!
Scott: I think it’s really important to find exciting challenges in our more down-to-Earth lives. You’ve done some crazy things. But now, you’re finding other challenges closer to home, and I do the same thing.
I know it’ll be a long time before I get a chance to go back up into space. Maybe I’ll never go again. But there’s so much of the world to see.
People ask me all the time, “You’ve flown in space. You’ve climbed Everest. What else is there left to do?” My bucket list has never been fuller.
There’s so many different places I want to visit. Travelling the world is a real passion of mine. But also, as an inventor, I’m really excited about technology. So I try and solve significant, unmet needs, as a product developer. So that’s what keeps me up at night.
So I’m every bit as excited about the adventures of my daily life as I was as an astronaut. I certainly wouldn’t turn down another trip to the space station or to Mars, but I’m pretty happy doing what I’m doing now too.
“You’ve flown in space. You’ve climbed Everest. What else is there left to do?” My bucket list has never been fuller.
Alastair: That’s a very good thing to hear. For people who are perhaps reading this blog and wanting to do big adventures but not actually doing them, I’ve got a few questions to try to offer them some advice.
I was trying to work out what are the most important things you need to be able to do a successful adventures I’ve got six things. Please will you choose the most important of these?
- Attitude and will
- Connections, family, peer group…
Scott: Okay. Well, I’m going to weasel out a little bit. There are two that are tied. Attitude/will is certainly up there, and skill. You can acquire skill if you have the right attitude. So it’s not necessarily something that you need to be born with. I think if you have the drive and desire, that will lead to acquisition of skill. Then the world is your oyster.
Alastair: Have you read “The Worst Journey in the World”?
Scott: No, I haven’t.
Alastair: What?! It’s my favourite-ever polar expedition book.
Alastair: It’s from Scotts’ expedition. It talks about what traits you need to be a good polar traveller. Essentially, it says when all else fails, skip the physical stuff and bank on will…
“If you want a good polar traveller get a man without too much muscle, with good physical tone, and let his mind be on wires – of steel. And if you can’t get both, sacrifice physique and bank on will.” – The Worst Journey in the World
Alastair: I’ve been doing research into what stops people doing the adventures they dream of. The number one thing, by a mile, is a lack of time. What’s your advice for people who think they don’t have enough time in life to do some adventures?
Scott: I think that can probably be viewed as a cop-out in many occasions.
I think if you have the will, you can find a way. A couple of times in my life, I’ve had the opportunity to take a leave of absence and do big things. Both my trips to Everest required some creative work-arounds at my day job, banking vacation time, initially. The second time I went to Everest (because I ruptured a disk in my back on my first summit attempt), when I returned the following year, I was at a point where I could have either stayed at NASA and maybe flown again in another five years, or gone off into a career in industry. I decided that I would take it as an opportunity to transition to a new career. So I retired from NASA. In the intervening two months I went back to Nepal and summitted [Everest].
So I think you can craft opportunities, rather than excuses, to do big things. Also, like you’re saying, you don’t need to necessarily go climb Everest and spend two months out there. You can go climb Ben Nevis or whatever. There are all sorts of really cool adventures that can be done on a shorter scale too.
Alastair: Do you feel very selfish to take so much time to go and do such risky things?
Scott: Well, yeah. There is a certain element of this . . . There are huge personal rewards in exploration, but they aren’t always enjoyed by your family, and certainly they worry for you deeply when you go away to do these kinds of things.
So there is a certain selfishness, I suppose, in exploration. But if it’s done for the right reasons, if there’s some social benefit, some educational benefit . . . I’ve always tried to have some kind of educational outreach with the things that I’ve done.
There can be some broader good as well. There’s nothing wrong with having personal satisfaction with your exploration either. And when we do go and explore, we come back better people as well. We come back reinvigorated, I think. I came back a better parent, more appreciative of the planet, a better steward of planet Earth.
The reason we go into space is to improve the quality of life here on Earth. So there are huge social, societal benefits of exploration. Conversely, going to climb Mount Everest doesn’t change the world. The fact that I summitted Everest doesn’t make the world a better place. That said, I did take thousands of school kids along for the adventure of Everest via social media, and we did conduct some valuable science there, but adventure for adventure’s sake is OK too!
Alastair: It doesn’t make the world a worse place either.
There’s nothing wrong with having personal satisfaction with your exploration either. And when we do go and explore, we come back better people as well.
Alastair: Would you prefer your son or daughter to be an astronaut, a mountaineer, or something totally different?
Scott: [laughing] Well, my kids aren’t really that interested in the space program. My son actually loves the mountains and hiking, but I doubt he’ll follow in my footsteps in either case. I think they think it’s probably too ordinary because they grew up around the space program.
Alastair: [laughing] That’s brilliant to hear. That’s perfect proof, isn’t it, that dads are boring! That’s a good way to bring you back to Earth.
Scott: Oh, yeah. Oh, they do it immediately. I think whatever excites them, when they find their passion, will be the right choice for them.
Alastair: What’s your favourite climbing book? And what’s the best space book?
Scott: Best climbing book . . . I love Herzog’s description of Annapurna.
Alastair: “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men…”
Scott: Yes! Exactly! Then I would have to say “Riding Rockets” by Mike Mullane.
Alastair: Oh, yes. I’ve read that. It’s great.
Scott: Oh, my God. It’s hysterical! In fact, I doubt I’ll be able to come even close to it, but that’s the kind of vision that I have for my book when I write it. I want it to be funny and relatable. That’s one of the best-written books I’ve ever seen, very self-deprecating, but really descriptive of the experience.
Alastair: My final question for you is: If I was to give you £1000 to go on an adventure, which wouldn’t get you far up Everest or into space, what would you go and do?
It’s the deepest blue hole in the world. I think it’s 660 feet deep or something like that. What I would probably do is go explore that. A dive down into Dean’s Blue Hole would be really interesting. It’s been visited a few times by divers, but very little is yet known about it. So I’d go there.
Alastair: Thank you so much.
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!