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May 15th 2020

The First Man to Climb Mount Everest — and Escape the Atmosphere

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To be clear, these events didn’t happen simultaneously. Given Dr. Scott Parazynski’s track record — he’s made five trips to space, completed multiple spacewalks, conquered Mount Everest, earned a medical degree and started his own company — it wouldn’t have been surprising to discover he’d found a way to blast off from the world’s tallest mountain through the atmosphere and into space.

Still, his actual list of accomplishments is no less impressive: Parazynski is the first man to climb Mount Everest and make it into space. And it gets better: While on his final mission, STS-120, he went farther on a spacewalk than any previous astronaut to repair a damaged solar panel on the International Space Station (ISS).

Beyond what he calls his “patented extreme focus,” what did it take for Parazynski to reach the summit and touch the stars? What setbacks marked his way on the path to making history? And — perhaps most importantly — what was harder: scaling the summit or suiting up for space?

Second Time Lucky

Summiting Everest is no easy task. Changing mountain conditions create a very small window of opportunity — typically just a few weeks in May — for climbers to reach the top. There’s also an emerging accessibility problem: As more and more technology-equipped climbers flock to the mountain, deadly “traffic jams” are occurring. According to the BBC, new rules are coming after one of the deadliest climbing seasons in history last year, partly to improve climber conditions and partly to stem the tide of trash being left behind.

Outdoor adventure company Alpine Ascents recommends a training regime that combines high-altitude climbing (above 20,000 feet, if possible), lower body and core strength training, cardiovascular training and flexibility training to increase the chances of success. Typical preparation times are a year or more, and the company also recommends hiring a personal trainer with climbing experience to help fine-tune athletic performance.

Parazynski did his due diligence; as an experienced climber, he made multiple treks up dangerous routes including the Khumbu Icefall and Lhotse Face to prepare for his journey. In 2008, he began the Everest ascent with a partner and two experienced guides, but at just over 24,500 feet — less than 5,000 feet from the summit — he suffered a ruptured disc in his lower back that forced him to abandon the trip and start over. After surgery and recovery, he tried again in 2009 and succeeded, becoming the first man to both climb Mount Everest and blast off into space.

Walk on the Wild Side

According to NASA, Parazynski went into space on five separate missions, starting with STS-66 in 1994, followed by STS-86 (1997), STS-95 (1998), STS-100 (2001) and finally STS-120 in 2007. This last mission proved the most challenging — during construction of the ISS, a solar panel tore during relocation and re-extension. Parazynski and his crewmates made multiple spacewalks to repair the problem, with Parazynski spending hours outside attached to a 15-meter extension boom connected to the space station’s 18-meter robotic crane.

Not only was he farther away from relative safety than any other astronaut in history at an hour’s walk from the cabin, he also faced the potentially fatal danger of touching the electrified solar panel. Slowly and carefully, he was able to knit the damaged panel back together using wire “cufflinks.” When all was said and done, Parazynski and Colonel Doug Wheelock spent seven hours and 19 minutes in the cold dark of space to save the day.

Outer Space or the Everest Summit?

From space, Everest isn’t all that impressive. While it towers above the landscape here on Earth at 5.5 miles high, the space shuttle cruises overhead at more than 600 miles from the surface. Given the massive difference, it seems like an easy call: Space must be the bigger challenge.

But according to Parazynski in a Forbes interview, “it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, and I would never trade either. The opportunity to fly in space is a profound life changer — it’s a Shirley MacLaine out-of-body experience to see your home planet from those altitudes, flying at such enormous speeds. You’re kind of looking back on your former existence. I would also suggest that the struggle to stand atop Everest, especially in my case where it didn’t come easily — I had to try twice before I succeeded — was wonderful and rare.”

For Parazynski, the training necessary for both endeavors was similar. He notes that one of the best ways to prepare for a spacewalk is rock climbing since both require significant strength and endurance. He also speaks to the mental mettle necessary; whether ascending the highest peak on Earth or breaking the bonds of gravity, there’s a palpable sense of isolation, loneliness and fear. Without the discipline required to handle this challenge, both climbers and astronauts are at risk.

The Triumph Trifecta

So what’s next for Scott Parazynski, the first man to climb Mount Everest and make it into space? Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s also an accomplished diver. With his NASA days done and his summits solved, he’s considering a new challenge: “Maybe one day I can get down to Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench,” he says. “That would make a pretty neat trifecta for me.”

Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery in science, technology, and engineering.

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