How Exploring Our Universe Opens New Conceptions of Reality

Former Astronaut, Inventor, and Physician

Scott Parazynski is the only person in history to have both flown to space and summited Mount Everest. He's seen more of this world than most, and some of what lies beyond it—so what is it about adventure that draws people like him in? Parazynski thinks it's innate curiosity that drives us, but that the more we explore the more we gain other reasons to keep going. Humanity has benefitted enormously from pursuing “moon shots”—like the Apollo missions—and NASA's research in particular has pushed our capacity for innovation, resulting in spin-off technologies that create new industries and change people's daily lives (3D printed food, invisible braces, memory foam, scratch resistant lenses, the DustBuster—come on!). Why keep your feet planted on Earth, or your mind planted in the known, when there could be life under the ice-encrusted oceans of Enceladus or Europa, a new home waiting for us on Mars, and technology on the horizon that will connect a surgeon in New York City with a person in danger in rural Nepal? Scott Parazynski is the author of The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed.

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TRANSCRIPT

Scott Parazynski: Why do humans explore? Well, part of it is quite fundamental to our nature; there’s adventure and challenge in it. But for me, the reason I’m drawn to exploration is because it forces us to think in novel ways. And as an inventor I love going into extraordinary environments and finding ways to do that more safely, more effectively, developing ways to extract better science. And so for me it’s actually been a wonderful catalyst for innovation.

Similar to NASA’s history—when you think back to the Apollo program, which is sort of the icon of my childhood, the thing that I wanted to be a part of as a kid, the things that had to be invented to safely send astronauts first into Earth orbit and then to the moon, the list is so long. But what came of that is an extraordinary list of technologies that we now take for granted. For example, the heart monitoring capabilities called the Holter monitor that we now have in daily practice around the world, that was something that was driven out necessity. We needed to monitor heart health, needed to make sure that the crew is still alive onboard those early tiny capsules. So by pushing our capabilities, whether it’s up in space, down in the Antarctic, inside volcanoes, underneath our oceans, we have to develop new technologies that benefit all the rest of us in our daily lives. And so the world is still very, very unknown and what I mean by that is yes we’ve been to most parts of our globe, but now we have a whole array of new sensing capabilities, new technologies, new analytical capabilities, big data analytics that will allow us to go back to these places and extract more knowledge and press our capabilities more. So I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive and certainly as an explorer.

Through the course of our space program and our space exploration thus far, we’ve developed the tools and countermeasures to safely send astronauts, colonists, to far-away worlds. And so, as I’ve already alluded, I think it’s our human destiny to go beyond Earth to hopefully create an outpost on the moon similar to what we have at the south pole, where we could conduct deep space research and also create a waypoint to resupply spacecraft that could travel further on, to Mars and other exciting places in our own solar system. You may have heard of Enceladus or Europa or Titan, these are ice-encrusted moons of our outer planets that have geothermal or volcanic activity within them and so they’re actually ice-crusted oceans, and wouldn’t it be amazing if we could send a spacecraft and/or crew there and sample those waters? I would think that the likelihood of finding at least some simple life forms there is quite high. That would change everything, to realize that life is perhaps not as unique as we thought.

I think deep space exploration is a human imperative, understanding our place in the solar system and in the broader universe. And one of the exciting things that’s happening right now is we’re discovering these exoplanets surrounding far-away star systems, and in fact planets are probably not the exception but probably the rule. There are probably planetary bodies around every little star, twinkle twinkle little star that we see in the night sky and so it’s incredibly exciting to think about what might be out there. Is there life elsewhere? And I think if we just think about it statistically, the trillions and trillions of star systems and far-away galaxies and the incredible number of planets that are certainly out there, the conditions for life must certainly exist. So I’m excited about the prospect of sending, hopefully, crews first to the moon but then on to Mars and I’m really so excited about Elon Musk’s vision of colonizing Mars. In fact, he’s got designs to design rockets that would carry a hundred colonists at a time and taking them to live out the rest of their lives on Mars. He’s a pretty interesting guy, as I’m sure you know, he’s been successful at pretty much everything that he has set his mind and his money to do, but he’s so dedicated to this concept of colonization that he’s stated that he wants to die on Mars and I think that’s commitment. 

I’m really passionate about virtual reality and mixed or augmented reality in the future, ways in which we can interact and learn and train ourselves to do new things from very remote places. And it will allow us to actually control robotics and do things that we would never be able to do in person because that environment is so dangerous. So the human-machine interface is actually something that is part of my daily life now. I’m at CEO of a tech startup company called Fluidity Technologies that is based on my intellectual property, robotic controls, leveraging, machine learning. So we’re able, in a single hand with our controllers, to operate drones, potentially even helicopters and ROVs, computer games, computer-aided design, augmented reality and maybe even teleoperation of surgical robots. And so in my far-away view, what I’d love to be able to offer the world is a surgeon here in New York City being able to operate with one of our controllers and deliver the same high-quality care to a patient in sub-Saharan Africa or in rural Nepal. That sounds like science fiction, but it’s really quite attainable with the technologies that I see on the forefront.