The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed is Scott Parazynski’s account of day-to-day life as an astronaut, plus some mountaineering stories.
It turns out that being an astronaut is bad for your health, even if the rockets don’t blow up. Spending time in a zero-g environment leads to permanent back problems:
my multiple spaceflights and spacewalks mean the likelihood of spinal trouble is almost as inevitable as an overloaded, rickety Jenga tower toppling over into a ragged heap. In space, the spine straightens and the intervertebral discs swell when not being compressed by gravity,
So don’t be too envious when your friend gets accepted by NASA and you don’t! There are minor issues as wel…
In space, astronauts often develop facial edema or swelling, associated with a mild runny nose and headache, because gravity no longer pulls blood and interstitial fluid into the legs as it does on Earth. Conversely, astronauts appear to have “bird legs” with this redistribution of fluid into the central blood circulation, accompanied by a 10 to 30 percent decrease in leg circumference.
Another serious danger is decompression sickness, or the bends, something I was very familiar with from my scuba diving background. If the pressure inside the spacesuit isn’t managed properly, going outside into the vacuum of space could cause nitrogen gas bubbles to expand inside an astronaut’s blood vessels, causing severe pain, cramping, and even paralysis or death. Higher suit pressure decreases the risk of decompression sickness, but lower suit pressure increases the astronaut’s flexibility and dexterity. Like a deep-sea scuba diver doing decompression stops to prevent the bends, astronauts must purge nitrogen from their bloodstream before going outside, accomplished by breathing 100 percent oxygen. The oxygen and other critical systems of the suit are housed in the Primary Life Support System, which resembles a large backpack.
The author is a physician so the book is strong on space medicine.
The author participates in a famous repair to a photovoltaic array that powers the International Space Station. Try searching for some videos of this seven-hour space walk!
As tough as the space walking is, the author describes climbing Mt. Everest as yet more difficult (similar risk of death as well). Two attempts on the mountain, the latter one successful, are describes in the book.
The book describes the author’s formative years. His father was a sales executive at Boeing. Iran looked promising in 1978 and the family was sent there for a one-year assignment:
But three days after we arrive, the country erupts in revolution. September 8, 1978, marks Black Friday, a massacre in the capital city’s Jaleh Square.
Optimistically betting on a quick and peaceful end to the protests, Dad goes to work at the Boeing office selling aircraft in the Middle East and I enroll in the twelfth grade at the Tehran American School, home to 1,059 high schoolers.
In December we receive notice that our 5,500 pounds of household goods have finally arrived from Athens, and Dad arranges for delivery on December 23. We move into a nice but compact rental house in a walled compound, but sometime that month, Dad finds a note on his car. Die, imperialist pig. You have one month to leave the country or we’ll kill you.
Dad feels sure the Shah can put down the insurrection with his substantial army, and he wants to go back and do his job, looking to the promise of a bright future.
In other words, what we think of as the inevitable political and religious trajectory of Iran did not seem inevitable at the time, at least to a foreigner.
The author’s personal life contains some challenges:
by fifteen months, Jenna starts to fall off the developmental curve. We notice she is easily agitated and incredibly noise sensitive, prone to intense, inconsolable tantrums. She doesn’t like to be comforted, or even touched. When she is two years old, after my return from STS-100, Jenna is behind in language development, doesn’t seem very interested in people (including us), and lives in an almost constant state of agitation.
At just over two years of age, our daughter is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder,
Jenna’s diagnosis and the ongoing struggles put a heavy strain on our marriage. For a time, I mourn the loss of my traditional hopes and dreams for Jenna, realizing she might not ever achieve a fully independent life, have a career, get married, or have children.
The author is candid about getting a “divorce,” though the term under Texas family law means something completely different than in California or New York. The financial damage is minimal (Texas caps child support profits and alimony is not generally available for a working spouse such as the author’s). He says that being an astronaut takes a toll on relationships and divorce is therefore common, but he does not look at the role of no-fault divorce laws. Explorers in the 19th century would go away for a year or two, still be married after their return (if they returned!), and then stay married for the next few decades. With on-demand divorce, would their partners have decided to stay partnered?
Once free of the wife with whom he does “not see eye to eye,” the author is quickly united with Meenakshi Wadhwa, a professor at ASU with whom he works (apparently it isn’t a #MeToo situation if the woman thinks that you’re tall, good-looking, and fit…).
Let’s hope that the ex-wife isn’t reading this book:
I pour out my heart to the most remarkable woman I’ve ever met. I thought soul mates only existed in Meg Ryan movies, but here is a woman who shares my great passions in life, accepts my weaknesses, and who brings out my very best. We are dreamers who never dreamed we’d find each other. Somehow, the universe brought us together through Earth, space, and ice. And I am never going to let her go.
They’re both on government-paid trips to Antarctica at the time of the proposal. Being a scientist has its perks! (but the childless status of Professor Wadhwa suggests that there is a price to be paid, especially for women)
Why are the rest of us such underachievers by comparison?
Most dreams are left on the pillowcase, unfulfilled. Dreams without a plan and a purpose get left behind in the rush of daily life. I get it; I have many dreams still on the shelf, and I learned early on that the pathway to success is long and arduous, and giving up can be tempting as hell. But I have learned how to dream big and then set course to make it happen. I’ve learned the essentials: keeping laser focused, visualizing the path to success, maintaining a strong support network, training for success but preparing for failures along the way, and having confidence tempered by humility and a dose of luck. If you are ready for the call of opportunity when it rings, and you are willing to put in the work required, it’s remarkable how dreamlets emerge, tangible, from the fog of unrealized dreams. It’s really not all that hard if you aren’t afraid to stumble every once in a while and then get back up. And back up. And back up again. The summits and calderas and skywalks and other bold life challenges are out there, waiting for you to dust off your dream. Everything is possible until proven impossible, and then you just need to become more creative. The sky is not the limit. And it never will be.
We need a dream and a plan!
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