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Astronauts Talk Danger, Determination, and Their SECRET SPACE ESCAPES

Astronauts Talk Danger, Determination, and Their SECRET SPACE ESCAPES

As should be a surprise to no one, we think space is kiiiiiiiind of amazing. The actual final frontier! The great unknown! The big sky blanket mystery supreme! (OK maybe that one’s taking it a bit far.) So we jumped at the chance to speak with two incredibly impressive astronauts—Robert Curbeam and Scott Parazynski—in anticipation of their stories being told on the upcoming Secret Space Escapes.

The show—slated to air on Science Channel on Tuesday, November 10th at 10pm—will tell the tale of previously classified missions wherein several astronauts were pushed to personal frontiers to save themselves, their colleagues, and/or the only ship that could take them home.

Outside of their heroic endeavors, both men are incredibly accomplished. Curbeam currently holds the record for the most spacewalks during a single spaceflight, and Parazynski (who went up into space five times, undertaking seven spacewalks) is one of the only people in the world to have also summited at Mount Everest in addition to heading out into the void. Naturally, these are two dudes who know a heck of a lot about the limits of the human spirit, in addition to, y’know, fixing crazy-important things while dangling out in space.

You can read our chat with them below.



Scott Parazynski doing construction on the International Space Station in 2007.

Nerdist: Okay guys, so I was watching the trailer for Secret Space Escapes and all I could think was, “this is batshit f–king crazy!”

Scott Parazynski: My heart was racing too. I loved it.

Robert Curbeam: I thought it was very well done.

Nerdist: It must be crazy to see these experiences you lived playing back on TV. It must be very surreal in terms of the way you understand both what you went through and how it plays out.

S: It brings back some of the intensity.

R: Exactly.

S: And I kind of miss that in my life, actually. I don’t have that level of intensity, which is good and bad I suppose. But yeah, I loved it.

R: You know what I thought was always interesting is when you see those kinds of scenes–and although there’s things happening in the scenes, your mind starts thinking about when you were in that situation and you almost forget what you’re watching and thinking about ‘well, I remember when…’

S: It’s personal.

R: Yeah, it gets personal instead of just, you know—sometimes probably you don’t even enjoy it as much as you should.

Nerdist: Well, you guys are both very impressive humans. I did a little bit of research, you know.

S: Anyone can sound good on paper [both laugh].


Astronauts Doug Wheelock (left) and Scott Parazynski, both STS-120 mission specialists, float near the galley on the middeck of Space Shuttle Discovery while docked with the International Space Station. Astronaut Scott Parazynski is featured in Secret Space Escapes.

Nerdist: I mean, that is also true but you guys have both accomplished so much, to have to talk about the real moments of vulnerability and terror; what’s it like for you guys to talk about that in this way?

S: Well, I can address maybe a slice of that. You know, in the heat of battle, and I think ‘Beamer [Robert Curbeam] can vouch for this: you aren’t really thinking about your own mortality, your own vulnerability. It’s really about, “man I really do not want to screw up.” So, the repair I did on this live solar panel–an enormous amount of work had taken place over 72 hours on the ground; it was brilliant engineering on the flight—it was an Apollo 13 moment, really. It was one of the most incredible stories of the shuttle space station era and all of this brilliant work had come up to my part. I was the eleventh hour, the very last person to touch this repair, to finish it off, so I really felt the pressure of, “Man, and everybody else had done their part perfectly and if I screw up and if I don’t affect this repair, I’m toast.” So, I really, quite honestly, was never thinking about my own vulnerability. I was doing the repairs, and [to do them] as safely as I could and complete the mission.

R: I agree whole-heartedly. Like you said, you just don’t wanna screw up. You’re sitting there—even if it’s not your fault, whatever happened, you wanna succeed in making it better. And so I don’t think you’re ever thinking about your own issues at that time: you’re just trying to do the job well, fix whatever’s broken, and move on. And then it’s not until afterwards that you sit there and go, “Oh yeah, I guess that was kinda risky.”

Nerdist: I imagine that’s something you must have to have as astronauts—that hyper-ability to focus and not look at like, “holy shit! I’m in outer space! I’m trying to fix a panel! I just have to hang out here for 90 minutes and hope the Sun burns all the toxins off!” I think for most people, they would immediately go to that panicked big-picture place.

S: You have to focus and compartmentalize, absolutely. Yeah, it really is extraordinary. We were talking about this earlier today: you’re out there and you focus just in your field of view which is right in front of you here, turning a bolt or an electrical connect or something, then you’ve got a minute to wait for your buddy to do something and you look up and there are the Himalayas or the Great Barrier Reef. There are those “Oh wow” moments when you realize that you’re no longer in the training pool—you’re in this out-of-body experience.

R: I agree. I think probably the times I enjoyed being out there the most were when we were kind of recovering from things that went wrong. You know, during the bake-out period, when they were trying to sublimate all the ammonia off the suit, you’re just sitting there, and we’re going over Asia, you know? You see the great plains of Asia—it’s beautiful. You get time to just sit there and take it all in.

S: You’re a space tourist for a second there.

R: Exactly. Or when we were tracking the solar array, there are times—at first—they wouldn’t let us work at night. Well, it was great ‘cuz we’re crossing over Europe during the winter, and there’s the Northern Lights! So you get to see that! If you know anything about geography you can pick out the cities in Europe at night ‘cuz you can see all the light patterns, so those are the times when it was the most fun, the most awe-inspiring.


Scott Parazynski doing construction on the International Space Station in 2007.

Nerdist: I bet. And I feel like that is something we all, as a human race, are starting to understand: this idea of the larger human race and being of one thing on this planet. I wonder, for you guys, what it must feel like because you guys have a perspective that nobody else has on the planet, but it’s perspective that is so desperately needed right now. That sense of smallness in a larger system? You guys have such a privileged position in that way: it must be very challenging to have to try and convey that sort of understanding.

R: It is, but, you know, I think Too-Tall [Parazynski] would agree with me, I always tell people, “If you don’t leave this Earth as a conservationist, you’ll come back as one, because it is so beautiful. And the things that look out of place or things that we’ve done—deforestation, pollution at the deltas of rivers—the way, when you look down at a winterscape with snow, downstream or downwind of all the cities, the snow looks a little bit grayer. These are all things that we, as people, do to this Earth that aren’t natural. Now, does that mean that we’re gonna fix everything? No. But we do have to be conscious of what we do and how it is affecting this Earth, because certainly it is.

S: I agree with everything Beamer just said and I think—on the positive side of what’s happening in space now—you think about the Mars rovers, New Horizons visiting Pluto, the advent of commercial human space flight; people are seeing other opportunities to engage in the future in the space program. I think it really is an exciting time, with this oversurgance of interest in space.

Nerdist: What do you guys think is the next thing people have to understand in terms of where we’re going with space exploration and what we can take in from that as people of Earth?

S: Well I think the ultimate human destiny is to look beyond ourselves—look beyond our sphere in low Earth orbit. I would love to see us go back to the moon as a stepping-off point to go to Mars, but ultimately we really need to have explorers on Mars, looking for the signatures of life. I think it’s one of the most profound and exciting questions of our time and, you know, the conditions for life that certainly existed on Mars may exist to this day. There’s permafrost in certain regions of Mars, so what if life was seeded by comets from some other star system millions of light-years away? We don’t know. So I think that is the next giant leap in exploration—to take us beyond low earth orbit.

R: Oh, I agree. I cannot wait. When I was with NASA, I actually worked on the Constellation Program for a little while before I left and that was gonna be such an exciting day for me when somebody—I didn’t care who it was—put a boot-print on Mars. You know, I just want it to happen in my lifetime and say, “Hey, I was a part of that. I helped make that happen.” Although, at the very start of the program—the very beginning—just being some part of it was exciting to me and I’m still waiting for that. I think Too-Tall should go! [All laugh]

S: I’d love to go!

R: I’m just getting a little old! I don’t know if I still got the skills!

Nerdist: Oh, come on!

R: There is no doubt in my mind that anybody [who’s gone] into space, if they called you up today saying, “We need you to be on the Mars crew—”

S: We’d be on it!

R: We’re there. We’re the old guys who know how to do some things the new guys maybe don’t know how to do.


STS-98 mission crew: astronauts Kenneth D. Cockrell (right front), mission commander; Mark L. Polansky (left front), pilot; Marsha S. Ivins; Robert L. Curbeam, Jr., (left rear) and Thomas D. Jones (right rear).

Nerdist: It’s like Space Expendables! [all laugh]

R: It would be a lot of fun to be a part of that team and, regardless of whether we’re the guys that actually do it or we inspire the people who go and do it—I just wanna be a part of that.

S: I’d describe it as, you know, whoever does do it will be going on our shoulders and the shoulders of the folks that preceded us. Absolutely.

Nerdist: You can’t get there without everything that NASA’s done beforehand. And I think that’s one thing that’s interesting: when you think about it on a grander scheme, it feels like, “How could a human, this one tiny person on a planet, be able to go into space and handle all these things?”

S: Well, the human being is so resilient and the human mind is so creative. I think the United States, it’s part of the American fabric to be bold and explore: our country was forged on bold risk-takers exploring. You know, Lewis and Clark forging west, and then of course making investments in aviation and later the space program. I think we were really lucky to be born when we were to be a part of all this, but the best is yet to come, for sure.

Nerdist: Yeah, it’s really exciting. And with every advance, it almost makes me feel like humans can be superheroes in a way, you know? It’s inspiring to see how much can be not only accomplished, but overcome, by humans and the human spirit.

S: Well, I think resilience, the ability to be creative under fire, are some of the best of human character, actually. In my example, one of the stories that gets profiled is the solar ray repair and it was a place that was never intended to be dealt with on a space walk, and so to have to think in a totally new way to keep a space walker safe—to get out to this part on the space station where we were never meant to travel, beyond the reach of any of our robotics systems—people had to think in an entirely new way. So, it really brings out the creativity and the can-do nature of NASA and international space station crew.

R: Yeah, is space is hard, but human ingenuity can overcome all the obstacles. And the bottom line is those obstacles will come, but I think through perseverance and the human need to explore, we’ll overcome them. We will. Might not be easy all the time, but we’re gonna overcome those obstacles and we’ll keep exploring.


Astronaut Robert Curbeam completing a mission.

Alicia Lutes is the Associate Editor of The Nerdist and really, really loves space. Find her on Twitter @alicialutes.

Image credits: NASA via Science Channel

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