Home » NASA Astronaut visits Texas Children’s: Q&A with Scott Parazynski
March 24, 2009 – Texas Children’s Hospital
By Monica Byars
As a child, Scott Parazynski had dreams of space travel. As an adult, his childhood dreams came true—he has spent nearly two decades as an astronaut with NASA’s space program. In addition to his extraordinary career, Parazynski is a doting family man with close ties to Texas Children’s Hospital. He was able to combine his love of space and children by teaming up with Texas Children’s Cancer Center on the Purple Songs Can Fly program. On his last flight to the Space Shuttle Discovery, Parazynski took songs written and performed by pediatric cancer patients and their siblings along for the journey.
How did you get involved with Texas Children’s Cancer Center and Purple Songs Can Fly?
I was approached by Anita Kruse, founder of the project, and I just though it was a very positive thing to do for kids battling cancer. After I took the CD into space, I returned to Texas Children’s to meet a number of the very talented musicians and patients who had prepared the songs. I was just blown away by their strength and by the music. One of the patients, Zachary Tavlin, had written and dedicated a song to me, and he performed it at the event. It was one of the most powerful things I’d ever heard. It was very difficult for me to keep dry eyes that morning.
One of the reasons I was particularly interested in doing it was because my family has close ties to Texas Children’s Hospital. My wife, Gail, has been a nurse at the Emergency Center for 17 years, and my son, Luke—who is now almost 12-years old—was treated for premature lungs. He received the best care in the universe. Also, my 9-year-old daughter, Jenna, is autistic and was a part of Texas Children’s Bridges program.
From an astronaut’s perspective, what’s the significance of hearing those songs during a flight?
Well, I think it’s the power of music combined with the power of dreaming big. This just comes naturally to theses kids. I think all kids have challenged, bur certainly children who are battling cancer have some huge burdens to overcome. However, they still have bid dreams and they’re still intrigued by the mysteries of life and the beauty of space and wonder what it’s like out there. So, for me personally, my part was easy—I just carried the songs into space with me. They had to create the music and pull it all together.
Did you dream of being an astronaut?
Yes—and I just never grew out of it. My father worked with Boeing on the space program, so he actually worked on Apollo when I was very young. I began dreaming of a career like this early on. I grew up with bottle rockets and space posters on the wall.
It must have taken an extraordinary amount of work to become one of the very, very few individuals who become astronauts.
It takes a lot of work and a lot of luck as well. I went to Stanford for my undergraduate degree and also for medical school. I did research in space physiology before becoming an astronaut. But you’re right; it is a very long path. I knew it was what I wanted to do and I just turned out to be fortunate.
What are the missions that you’ve been on?
I’ve flown in space five times. I’ve been to the Russian space station, Mir, which is at the bottom of the Indian Ocean now. Also, I took a couple of trips up to the international space station for assembly, and I’ve done seven space walks. On one of my missions I flew with Senator (and former astronaut) John Glenn, which was an honor. Also I did a mission that was dedicated to studying the earth’s atmosphere, ozone hole and other things that affect ozone distribution around the world.
The fun part about the job is that everyone is trained very broadly, so you’re exposed to very diverse types of projects. One day I could be looking at oceanography and meteorology and the next day astrophysics and computer science. You learn a lot of different things. I just love that part of it.
Are you still going on missions?
Well, my wife says I’m done, so…no. I really enjoy being part of the space program now and helping other crew members get ready for their first missions. I’m working in a branch that develops tools and procedures and provides real-time support to the astronauts on the missions. That’s what I’m doing today; we’ll figure out the next chapter as it evolves.
Do you see any relationship between children’s health care and space travel?
Absolutely, a lot of the technology that we’ve developed for the space program, such as telemedicine and telerobotic surgery, have applications in health care. We’re doing some really exciting things with medicine, medical devices and diagnostics that are going to have a big impact in the coming years.
Do you believe in life outside of Earth?
Great Question! Actually I do think that life probably exists elsewhere. The Hubble Space telescope and other observatories have seen planetary bodies around other solar systems, some of which probably could sustain life, have atmospheres, and possibly even water.
I will say, though, I don’t think we’ve been visited by little green men. In fact, I think it’s extremely improbable just because of the enormous distances involved. As far as we know, the speed of light is the speed limit, so it’s unlikely that it will ever happen. But we’re actually looking for life, perhaps on Mars, and we’re looking and listening even further out in the universe. Making that kind of discovery would definitely revolutionize our knowledge of our place as we know it.