Although the term "spacewalking" sounds casual enough, " 'spacewalking' is really a misnomer. You're 'space floating,' if you will, and controlling yourself with your hands," said experienced spacewalker and one-time Palo Alto resident Dr. Scott E. Parazynski of NASA. He has participated in three spacewalks since joining NASA in the early 1990s.
A spacewalk is "the ultimate astronaut experience, without a doubt. It really defies description or characterization because it's so overwhelmingly beautiful," Parazynski told The Chronicle on Tuesday. "I don't know that there's a human being alive who is eloquent enough to do it justice."
In space, you're protected only by your oxygen-filled high-pressure suit, and moving around in it requires considerable effort because it's like walking inside an inflated balloon, Parazynski said. Yet you quickly become accustomed to moving in three dimensions -- you can spin on your head as casually as ordinary Earthlubbers walk backward -- and it rapidly becomes second nature.
And the view! Like a mountain climber perched atop the needle nose of the ultimate mountaintop, you feel wonderfully alone, "enveloped by the enormity of the universe. You're traveling around Earth more than 17,000 mph. You see continents (pass by you) at a single glance through a very thin layer of glass, your (helmet) visor."
One time, Parazynski was on a spacewalk when he and the shuttle flew "through the Northern Lights," or aurora borealis. This famous upper-atmospheric sight was glistening on and off in the orbital space around him due to interactions between high-speed cosmic particles and the extremely thin wisps of residual atmosphere roughly 180 miles above Earth. "They're wispy, beautifully colored lights. ... It was a wonderful experience."
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
From "Astronaut's Risky Missions" in the August 5, 2005 issue of The San Francisco Chronicle: