As a kid in the 1960s, Scott Parazynski had space posters on his bedroom wall. He met German rocket scientists who came to his home for dinner with his father, an engineer involved in NASA's early programs.
"Every kid on the planet at some time wants to become an astronaut," said Parazynski. "I just never let go of that dream."
Image to left: Scott Parazynski is a mission specialist preparing for his fifth spaceflight. Credit: NASA
Parazynski's dream came true in 1992. He pursued a career in medicine but kept his dream of becoming an astronaut in mind. While in medical school at Stanford University, he conducted research at NASA's Ames Research Center on the changes that occur during human spaceflight.
Parazynski applied to the astronaut program in 1991. He said he didn't expect to be selected on his first try and was surprised when NASA called in the spring of 1992.
"We'd been waiting for months and months and months," Parazynski recalled. "We were wondering if they were ever going to call us, even just to let us down and let us know 'try again.'"
Parazynski said he just happened to be home the day NASA called. "I hooted and hollered at the top of my lungs," he said. The new class of astronaut candidates was asked not to tell anyone about the selection until the official announcement was made, but Parazynski said he couldn't contain the excitement and called everyone he knew.
"NASA really wanted to hire folks in life sciences that particular year, so the timing was just right," he said.
Fifteen years later, Parazynski is preparing for his fifth spaceflight. He will fly as a mission specialist on the STS-120 shuttle mission, targeted for October 2007. The STS-120 crew also includes Commander Pam Melroy, Pilot George Zamka, and mission specialists Doug Wheelock, Stephanie Wilson, Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency.
Parazynski is preparing for the STS-120 tasks, which include installing a U.S. connecting module, known as Harmony, on the International Space Station. The crew also will relocate the P6 truss segment from the station's zenith, or top, to the port, or left side, of the station's backbone truss. The relocated segment will attach to the P5 truss element, which was installed by the STS-116 shuttle crew in December 2006.
Parazynski said the Harmony installation is a very big task, but it is similar to assembly tasks done in the past. The relocation of the P6 truss, however, will involve some challenging choreography, he said, including using both the shuttle robotic arm and the station arm. He called the relocation a "major milestone for the program."
The P6 truss was added to the station in 2000. The STS-120 crew will power it down, retract the solar arrays, retract the radiators, unplug it and then move it all the way to the other end of the station. "All these things have to fit together properly and the connectors have to mate perfectly," Parazynski said. "The solar arrays and the radiators have to deploy. A lot of milestones have to happen. And you also have to be prepared for if things don't go exactly as planned."
Parazynski's training has included preparing for possible problems. He said the training is so extensive that he's experienced more problems in training sessions than he's ever encountered in space.
"It's really neat and exciting training. It really gets you immersed in the environment," Parazynski said. "You really believe that you're there, so that by the time you're actually doing it, you feel like you've been there a hundred times before."
Image to left: Astronaut Scott Parazynski demonstrates a tile repair technique during Return to Flight activities in 2003. Parazynski will use the Tile Repair Ablator Dispenser, or T-RAD, on a spacewalk during the STS-120 mission. Credit: NASA
When he's not training for a flight, Parazynski is busy helping other astronauts prepare for missions. He also assists in developing new tools and testing new products. After the Columbia accident, Parazynski was the lead astronaut on the Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System Inspection and Repair team charged with finding ways to repair the shuttle in orbit if the shuttle were to be damaged during liftoff.
Parazynski has flown on four shuttle missions: STS-66 in 1994, STS-86 in 1997, STS-95 in 1998 and STS-100 in 2001. He served as a crew representative for extravehicular activity, or EVA; a crew representative for space shuttle, space station and Soyuz training; and as deputy of operations and training in the space station branch of the Astronaut Office. Most recently, he was the chief of the Astronaut Office EVA branch.
Parazynski has conducted three spacewalks so far in his career, the first of which was in 1997. He said he talked with his astronaut colleagues prior to that first spacewalk about what it was like to be outside the confines of the shuttle and in the vastness of space. But after experiencing it for himself, he said seeing Earth from the vantage point of space was beyond description.
"Everywhere you look, when you're outside on a spacewalk, is the enormity of the universe," he said. "It's overpowering. It's a lot different from being inside the space shuttle looking through a very thick window. I make the comparison between flying across the country in a commercial airliner, where you have your own little window, and it's beautiful. You can see the mountains and the streams and the farmland below. But then, if you imagine yourself sky diving, that's the kind of contrast between being inside the shuttle, and looking out the window, and being on a spacewalk."
One of his most memorable moments as an astronaut was flying with Mercury astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. Thirty-six years after that historic flight, Glenn returned to space on STS-95. Parazynski said flying in space with Glenn was an emotional experience.
Image to right: John Glenn and Scott Parazynski work on board the space shuttle Discovery during the STS-95 shuttle mission in 1998. Credit: NASA
"It was so powerful, because he was one of my boyhood heroes, and to miraculously end up flying a mission with him is like science fiction," Parazynski said. "I remember him floating up to the flight deck for the first time and looking out the window, and it was a very emotional, powerful experience for all of us. I snapped a really touching picture of him during that moment that I really value a lot."
Parazynski encourages young people to find a career they can be passionate about. To those hoping to be an astronaut, he advised focusing on mathematics and science, which he said are the languages of the future.
"These are exciting days, not just for NASA and its plans for future exploration, which can open up new jobs for many, many people, but also for commercial space travel," he said. "A commercial space pilot, for example - that's going to be a real job title some day in the not-too-distant future. You could be the caretaker of an orbital hotel. That's going to happen.
"If you're interested in space, you've been born at the right time; so keep your eyes open and work hard at math and science."
NASA is committed to building strategic partnerships and linkages between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics formal and informal educators. The agency is engaging students, educators, families, the public and others to increase Americans' scientific and technological literacy.
Heather R. Smith/ NASA Educational Technology Services