Astronauts Scott Parazynski (light shirt) and Jeff Ashby (dark shirt) spoke at the Dillon Lecture Series at Hutchinson Community College Monday morning. They bantered back and forth both at the lecture and at the luncheon afterwards. It was very fun to watch. They are both astronauts and adventureres. Parazynski is a medical doctor and Ashby is a former Navy fighter pilot.
The speech was largely about Parazynski’s climb to the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on the planet. Ashby went to base camp, but did not climb to the summit. Parazynski tried it in 2008 but had to turn back near the end of the journey due to a back injury. He went back in 2009 and was successful. Each attempt takes about two months total time.
Parazynski has climbed all 59 of the Colorado mountains over 14,000 feet, as well as many others. He and Ashby, a Kansas native, flew on one shuttle mission together, STS-100. On that mission, Ashby was trained to be doctor to Parazynski in case he had need of medical care. Parazynski joked, “I’ve never been more motivated to stay healthy.” He said Ashby took the surgeon’s motto, “A chance to cut is a chance to cure,” a bit too seriously.
At the lecture they introduced each other and Ashby told a really funny story. He said he was invited to speak to a fourth grade class and the students were supposed to write an essay beforehand on the topic of, “How do you think you will be inspired by Captain Jeff Ashby?” A young man named Tony wrote, “I probably will not be inspired by Captain Jeff Ashby because my hero is Dr. Scott Parazynski.” He went on to say that Parazynski had saved the space shuttle.
He was referring to a repair Parazynski made to the solar array on the shuttle. It has been referred to as the shuttle era’s Apollo 13 moment. When a tear occurred they had to brainstorm ideas of how to repair it. Parazynski said, “You can’t go down to Home Depot and get a Solar Array Repair Kit.”
Ashby took a copy of that letter with him in 2008 when he hiked up to the Everest base camp, a 36 mile hike, where Parazynski was before attempting the summit. Ashby showed a photo of him crossing the first large bridge and said, “I noticed the higher and scarier the bridge, the more prayer flags hanging on it.”
At the luncheon, someone wondered what had happened to the fourth grader, Tony, and Ashby moved to the microphone and quipped in a totally deadpan way, “I believe he’s in jail now.”
Both of them performed space walks and Parazynski referred it as the “ultimate astronaut experience.” He said you’re in your own individual space craft with, “only a thin visor between you and the infiniteness of the universe.”
Ashby talked about gaining perspective through his climbing and space travel. “We seek the high ground for a different perspective. We can see what’s above us and where we came from. This is important to those of us who climb.”
Parazynski talked about the difficulties of the Everest expeditions. “Everything travels on the back of a yak or the back of a person,” he said. But it was awe-inspiring to be there. “I’d seen pictures, but to see it with the naked eye… was amazing.” He also loved the people saying, “They’re amazing, very spiritual, and live life to the fullest, even though the life is simple. It’s very uplifting just to be in their presence.” He paused for a moment and said, “It would change you if you get a chance to visit.”
When he made it to the summit, he got to spend, “thirty minutes on top of the world.” He said the summit is about as big as a dining room table, and two or three people can sit there at a time. He took a NASA prayer flag commemorating those who have died in the space program. He also took a sample of moon rock from Apollo 11, and brought a sample from Everest. The two are side by side on the International Space Station now.
They both talked about how one day man will summit peaks on the moon. Parazynski pondered, “What other challenges are there in our solar system,” saying, “It’s human nature to challenge oneself.”
Ashby spoke about the famous Everest explorer, Mallory, and said, “In 1921 he dreamed about climbing a mountain he’d never seen. I think there are humans among us who will be called to explore.” Parazynski said he believes we all have an internal knowledge that we must explore for our species to survive.
Ashby said he has learned to always think about if he’s seeing everything there is to see in a situation, and to consider the mindset he’s approaching it with.
Asked to give advice to young people, Parazynski said, “The language of the future is going to be in science and technology.” He went on to say, “It’s important to have big dreams, but stay the course. Anything in life you have to work for. It’s not going to be handed to you. Hold onto the dreams you have but be willing to work hard for them. If it’s not of sufficient interest for you to do really well then don’t do it.”
Parazynski summed up space travel early in the day. “You can’t achieve greatness if you’re unwilling to accept risk.”