Plus

Operating at zero gravity

A physician-astronaut in space

The year was 2007 and Scott Parazynski, MD, was on the International Space Station. He and the rest of the space shuttle Discovery’s crew had delivered a new module for the station and were readying for their next mission: to reposition the solar arrays — the station’s massive wings. But there was a hitch.

Scott Parazynski during a spacewalk to repair a solar wing on the international space station. (Photo: Douglas Wheelock, Courtesy of NASA)

An array on one of the wings ripped while being unfurled, forcing the astronauts to change their plans.

Parazynski, an alumnus of Stanford University and the School of Medicine, had been 22 months into a residency in emergency medicine when he joined NASA. He didn’t get to finish his medical training, but he put his suturing skills to work while dangling from a “space cherry picker,” reinforcing the damaged wing with straps that worked like cuff links.

In his 2017 memoir, The Sky Below, co-authored with Susy Flory and published by Little A, Parazynski describes floating out of the hatch, moving down a long space station truss to reach the robotic arm, the Canadarm2. There, Douglas “Wheels” Wheelock helped secure his boots in the foot restraint, which (he hoped) would hold him fast on his ride out to the damaged portion of the array. On the tool carrier built into the front of his suit, Parazynski had a pin puller to tug the solar panel toward him, a cutter for clipping cables, and his “hockey stick” — an L-shaped tool he could use to push the panel away. Wheelock remained perched at the end of the truss to monitor Parazynski and the arm. Engineers had warned that direct contact with the panels would send them into wavelike patterns, between 5 and 6 feet in and out, which would hamper their progress.

Inside the station, Stephanie Wilson and Daniel Tani controlled the robotic arm, and Paolo Nespoli issued safety warnings. Commander Pamela “Pambo” Melroy called directions to Parazynski and confirmed his movements, which he called back to her and to Mission Control in Houston. From Houston, the lead space station flight director, Derek Hassman, led the repair effort; lead spacewalk officer, Dina Contella, oversaw the extravehicular activity, known as an EVA; robotics officer Sarmad Aziz monitored the robotics team; and astronaut Steve “Swanny” Swanson was the primary capsule communicator.

“It is definitely a dream team, and this is the gold medal round,” writes Parazynski, who describes the mission in the following excerpt.

Excerpt

Our goal is to carry out the full repairs, including a major ride on the robotic arm to the repair site and back, within 6½ or seven hours. I don’t care about the lack of food or bathroom breaks — I’m fully equipped to manage the latter — but if we attempt to stay much longer, the EVA suit will be close to draining the tanks to empty. In terms of consumables like oxygen, CO2 scrubbing and battery power, no one wants to cut it too close.

My feet are now locked into the foot restraint on the boom, which in turn is attached to Canadarm2 … and the arm starts moving slowly. The views are staggering, unlike anything any other human being has ever seen before.

I am positioned on top of a space cherry picker, well above the ISS and Discovery and our pale blue dot of a home planet. There’s no way to do this experience justice; all I can mutter is a markedly uninspired, “Wow, that is the most incredible sight I’ve ever seen!”

I continue flying out toward the end of the solar array, Steph and Dan taking good care of me, but I feel like a tiny worm dangling on the end of a fishing line cast out in slow motion. I am minuscule against the great blackness of space.

I have some prep work to do on this utterly unique commute to work, but I do notice Wheels making good progress out to the tip of the station, backdropped by an orbital sunset. The sky is below, with the Earth’s atmosphere so thin, a beautiful blue skin around the pulsing, glowing blue, green and rich brown beauty of the planet. Clouds of every color and shape and configuration float inside the bluish atmospheric bubble, sometimes pierced by brilliant streaks of lightning.

I look for edges of continents, and for places I’ve traveled to and places I still want to go. I see Everest rearing her magnificent, snowy head above her sisters, the great chain of the Himalayas. I smile. Maybe someday I’ll go there and climb it, and possibly even see the space station fly overhead.

There’s no way to do this experience justice; all I can mutter is a markedly uninspired, ‘Wow, this is the most incredible sight I’ve ever seen!’

Paolo suddenly interrupts my sightseeing, wanting to run through the cautions and warnings involved in working on the solar panel. He begins rattling off a litany of “no touch” zones, along with a dire warning that I may actually experience current arcing from the damaged panel to my spacesuit. I thank him for his important words of counsel and he replies, “Wait, I’m only halfway done!”

I bend back at my knees as far as they’ll take me, since the robotic maneuver has mostly kept the ISS at my back, out of my field of view. I finally see our destination and my heart begins to race. Reverie interrupted, it’s time to work.

I go into my hyperfocused state and survey the damage. “The steel metal braid wire is frayed and tangled in front of me, like a hairball.” It looked like the size of a ping-pong ball. “There’s several strands of wires all grouped together there,” I report.

“I’m sure that’s causing shudders on the ground somewhere,” says Pambo.

“You have some surgery to do, Dr. Parazynski,” she adds.

“I think so.” Her voice makes me feel safe. I know she’s crouched up in the window with a set of binoculars, tracking my every move.

But wait. I can’t quite reach the site.

The arm is stretched out as far as it can go and I can practically feel everyone listening, holding their collective breath. Now it is up to Wheels and me, Stephanie and Dan on the arm, and the rest of the watchful crew inside Discovery, ISS and Mission Control, to get the job done. I ask the robotic arm crew if they can reorient me to allow me another couple feet of reach. Dan replies that he can do so, but it will take some time to pull me back and reorient the arm to make another pass. On the ground, Sarmad confirms, “I can’t give him any more.” Meanwhile, Swanny calls up and informs us that we’re already running short on time, with about an hour and a half before we have to wrap it up.

We haven’t even begun the actual repair and we’re already short on time. Dammit! But I stretch, my long arms extending out fully, and with the pin puller tool I can just barely reach the panel. I pull it gently toward me.

Wheels is watching below. “Looking good, Spike.”

Finally, I truly get to work. First, we have to cut the hairball out, allowing the cable to retract toward Wheels, with him controlling it with his modified Vise-Grip.

For the next bit, I need to be even closer, close enough to push a cuff link tab into a hole that had been used to keep the solar panel aligned during its launch. I’m juggling my three tools, using the pin puller to pull in the wing, maneuvering the cuff link into and through the hole with the taped-up wire following it in, and using the hockey stick to keep the wing from getting in contact with my suit. I could really use an extra hand, but that’s not gonna happen.

“Heads up!” It’s Wheels, and I tell him I see the wave coming. I hear Pam breathe in hard as I lean back a bit and grapple with the hockey stick, using it to push the billowing wing away from me. Then I quickly get back to work.

After that, with the technique and the pattern established, it’s just a delicate suture job and time flows as I concentrate on the tools, the wing and the work.

Finally, it’s done. Hairball removed. Five sutures in, five homemade cuff links and wires holding it together, spanning two rips. Over six hours have gone by, and we still need to deploy the panel and get home. I stow my tools, stop for a moment and breathe. I straighten up and try to give my body a quick break, consciously relaxing clenched, tired muscles. I open and close my hands, fighting the pressurized gloves.

“Discovery, Houston,” Swanny says from the ground. “We are happy with the current config, and we are ready for you to back off and get ready for the deploy.” Wheels and I monitor the slow, segmented extension of the balky panel, and soon realize that it’s all going to work.

It’s a triumphant moment when we hear the panel is fully extended, cheers audible on the communication loop from Mission Control. Our work here is done. And somehow I know it’s the best day on the job I will ever have.

“All right,” I say, trying not to sound too excited. As if this is just another day in the training pool. “That’s how you do it!”

“Excellent,” says Pam. Her voice is guarded, though. She still has to get me back inside. “You know there aren’t many people in the office who could do what you just did there.”

“I hope they don’t have to!” I say. Relief washes over me. “That was a beautiful day in space right there.”

As I fly back toward the airlock, my stomach growls and my beat-up knuckles sting with blisters. I’m exhausted but overjoyed. As I fly through space this one last time, I’m grateful. I can’t believe we all did it. And I can’t believe I got to be a part of it. I look once again, drunk with the beauty of the Earth and the thin blue line below.

I think of the team, the hundreds of brilliant and hard-working people who came together for this, one of NASA’s finest moments. We did it.

Additional Reading

Virtual calming

Easing anxiety in young patients using immersive technology

No place to call home

Housing insecurity puts children’s care, treatment at risk