Why Going to Outer Space Is Actually Easier Than Summiting Mount Everest

There's only one guy on this whole planet who's done both. He tells us what it's like to experience two of the most extreme feats.

Scott Parazynski: Probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done is ascend Mount Everest. That might come as a surprise; it’s very hard to become an astronaut, train for a mission, and go fly a mission, but the psychological difference of being on Mount Everest is pretty substantial.
When you’re in space you’re inside your spacecraft, you’re comfortable, you’re in short sleeves, it’s warm, you have three square meals a day, you’re not hypoxic, you’re not in malnourished. Up on Mount Everest every second of every day you’re feeling that: the thinning air, you can’t get enough calories in your body—you need 5000 or 6000 calories a day just to break even—and so you feel the life threat every minute of every day. There are avalanches that come calving down off the walls around the cirque of Everest base camp, so you feel that cumulative psychological stress of: you know you’re in a really dangerous place.

On a space shuttle mission in contrast you feel the threat obviously on the launch, you know, you’ve got seven million pounds of thrust taking you off of the planet, but then it’s very beautiful and peaceful, you’re in this extraordinary glass-bottom boat looking at your home planet and you feel like you’re the luckiest person alive. The only other time that you feel perhaps some degree of trepidation is floating outside that hatch and going out in the vacuum of space on a spacewalk, but for the most part being in space is just a peaceful, relaxing, disarming kind of a place, whereas the mental toll and the physical toll of Everest is pretty exceptional.

Certainly on Everest you’re out there more or less on your own, you have a small team, a cadre of folks that you’re with, and I had the good fortune to be with about 20 climbers on my team and my sidekick, Danuru Sherpa from Phortse, is just one of the amazing athletes and mountaineers in the world. He’s now summited Mount Everest 16 times. I used to joke with him all the time that he had three lungs and two hearts because he could just kind of run up most parts of Everest. Summit day, however, was a great equalizer, he was very much suffering just as much as I was, but you’re pretty much left to your own resources. No one can carry you down from summit day on Mount Everest, you’re going to do it under your own power or you’ll add to the 250 souls that are left on the side of the mountain, so it’s pretty sobering and you’ve got to have your wits about you.

I think that also weighs heavily in terms of the psyche of being high in the mountains versus being in space where you have this brilliant team of engineers and flight controllers in Houston and around the world kind of looking over your shoulder, and if things start to go south you know you’ve got the A-Team at your back.

Would you rather blast off into the cold emptiness of space in a fallible rocket, or drag yourself past 200 dead bodies to the inhospitable summit of Mount Everest? Former astronaut Scott Parazynski is the only person on Earth who has conquered both these extreme feats, and it turns out that the challenge closer to home is the one that made his heart race the most. Once you survive the rocket launch, space is rather tranquil, with beautiful views, and you're well looked after by the smartest support team of scientists in the country, Parazynski points out. On your way up the tallest mountain on Earth, however, the threat of death looms with every step. You cannot eat enough or breathe enough to nourish your body, and once you reach your goal -- guess what? You're only halfway. Listen to Parazynski describe these two incredible experiences, and the psychological impact of finding somewhere lonelier than the dark nothingness of space. Scott Parazynski is the author of The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
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