There's been some buzz
this week about the prospect of finding the body of Andrew Irvine, one of the two men who died in an attempt to scale Mount Everest in 1924. The interest apparently lies not as much with Irvine's body, as it does with a Kodak camera he was known to have taken with him on the expedition, and not so much with camera, really, as with the film it contains. After much speculative discussion, experts have declared there is reason to believe that, if the film is recovered and kept frozen, it may give up some usable images.
Mountain climbing is a tough racket, and Everest is reknowned as a harsh mistress. The mountain was, after all, the inspiration for one of history's most fundamentally honest answers to a reporter's question. When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, George Mallory – Irvine's partner in that fatal 1924 climb – replied, "Because it's there!"
One man who knows exactly how tough Everest can be is former astronaut Scott Parazynski. One year after a back injury cut short his attempt to climb Everest, he gained the summit in May 2009, carrying - among other things - rocks from the Moon. Those samples, along with a small rock sample from the top of Everest, are now destined to travel to the International Space Station aboard the next Space Shuttle mission.
I don't know Scott very well, but my work at NASA did throw us together a few times over the years, both directly and indirectly. I first met him back in the mid -1990s, at about the time he was declared ineligible to fly aboard the Russian Soyuz space capsule because he was two inches taller than the height specified as acceptable by Russian flight surgeons. Talk about disappointment!
Over the years, my clearest memory of Parazynski is of a training session at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which houses what has to be the world's largest swimming pool. The pool is about 40 feet deep and contains over 6 million gallons of water. Submerged under the surface are mockups of various chunks of station hardware with which astronauts work in space. The idea behind working submerged in water is that, properly balanced to near-perfect neutral buoyancy, the experience is said to closely mimic what it feels like to work in the weightlessness of space.
The Lab's pool area is also really photogenic - expansive, well-lit, colorful, and brimming with activity - and my assignment that day was to interpret for a Russian news crew that was filming a news story about the space program. Initially, there wasn't much for me to do as the crew unlimbered their camera equipment and focused on the action around Parazynski and another crew member as the pair prepared to suit up for their training run.
By the time we arrived, the astronauts were already there, wearing special "undergarments" with a number of narrow plastic tubes embedded in the fabric. Water circulating in these tubes keeps the body of a suit's occupant cool, which is important, because without such regulation, the suit would get unbearably hot pretty quick. After a few moments spent chatting with the divers who were going to assist in the training, the astronauts sat down on the floor, extended their legs, and awkwardly wriggled into the lower part of their suits.
Once that was done and the boots were properly attached, the half-suited astronauts were ready to don the top portion of their suits. Everyone involved in the process - including Yuri, a Russian cosmonaut I had worked with on several occasions and a crewmate of Scott's - took their time to make sure all the seams and joints were properly sealed.
Watching an astronaut don a space suit torso at the NBL is pretty amusing, because the astronaut looks like he's "dancing" into it with arms raised above his head, aided by many twists, turns, bumps, and grinds. It reminded me of someone doing the limbo, rotated vertically. Eventually, the upper portion of the suit was mated to the lower, the helmet was locked in place, final checks were made, and the hard part was over. Everyone except NBL staff members cleared away from the suited astronauts.
Yuri came over to stand by me as the staff strapped the astronauts to the platform, which was then hauled into the air, swung out over the water, and lowered slowly into the pool. Once the platform and its encapsulated human cargo was submerged, divers would unstrap the suited astronauts and tow them over to where they would start their training run.
As the news crew continued to document the lowering of the platform into the pool, Yuri looked up and around the hall, and I followed his gaze. Overhead, on the opposite side of the pool, was the control room, where the training director and his cohort monitor the goings-on using a bank of video monitors and voice loops. Behind us, above a row of international flags, was the visitor's gallery.
That day, the gallery windows were crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with kids, doubtless on field trips with classroom groups. A few of the students waved down at us and Yuri waved back. He caught me looking at him and smiled.
"I remember going on field trips like that when I was a boy," he said. "Although we never visited anything as cool as this
!" He spread his arms a little to embrace the pool and its surroundings.
"Where did you go?" I asked.
"Once, our teacher took us to visit a glider field near our city," he said. "Seeing those gliders... up close... getting to sit in one...," he paused, giving his head a little shake, "that was when I decided I wanted to fly more than anything else in the world."
The crew completed filming at the NBL, interviewed Yuri later that afternoon, and finished their day with more camera work, shooting a segment at the JSC "rocket park," a collection of rockets and engines that is, for many, an iconic image of space exploration. As the crew put away its camera and sound equipment, I took out my own camera and took some photographs of my own., for no reason except, perhaps, to somehow say "I was here!"
If the film in Irvine's camera does show that he and Mallory attained Everest's summit 30 years before Edmund Hillary accomplished the deed, there are some that some say the images will rewrite the history books, though I tend to doubt it. One thing I do not doubt, though, is how utterly cool it is to have acquired the skills to be able to passionately pursue a goal "because it's there!"
Throw Back Week - Intersection Variation
My previous topic: Moments of Devastating Beauty
My topic this time: Current Events
URL of current event story: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mount-everest-mystery
My partner is furzicle
. Her entry is here.UPDATE! VOTING IS OPEN!If you liked my and furzicle's entries, please visit the poll for this week's LJ Idol and make sure you cast your votes!
Voting closes at 8 pm EST on Wednesday, February 3.