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What's Scarier?
(A) Climbing Denali
(B) Blasting Into Space

David Roberts talks to the one man who knows for certain: John Grunsfeld.

Photo: Nasa's flag waves at the top of a mountain

Forty-six-year-old John Grunsfeld is the principal in-flight mechanic for the Hubble Space Telescope. On two of his four career space missions, in 1999 and 2002, the NASA chief scientist and astronaut has risked dangerous space walks in order to complete several upgrades and repairs of the orbiting telescope. Donning a pressurized suit, he left the space shuttle and climbed onto the 24,000-pound (10,882-kilogram) instrument as it whipped through the stratosphere at around 18,000 miles (28,968 kilometers) an hour. Unwilling to countenance the recent NASA edict to stop servicing Hubble, Grunsfeld has designed a robot, to be launched in late 2007, that will dock with Hubble and, if all goes well, extend the life of the $1.5 billion telescope another three to eight years. Back on Earth, Grunsfeld recently completed a mission of another sort: He led his first successful summit of Denali. Adventure Contributing Editor David Roberts caught up with Grunsfeld shortly after the September 2004 NASA Symposium on Risk and Exploration, in Monterey, California.

What does it feel like to walk in space?

It's a truly magical experience. But of course spacewalking isn't really walking at all. It combines the balance, coordination, and skill of rock climbing with the wonders of free floating. You have to be conscious, in a way, of your own center of gravity and try not to make any sudden moves even though there is no gravity.

The first time I did a space walk, or EVA, extravehicular activity mission, it was so overwhelming that I was barely able to communicate about the experience.

I floated out of the air lock and spent a few minutes getting used to free floating, turning cartwheels, and pitching back and forth. I'd spent years training in a large swimming pool in my space suit, but I had to untrain some of my reactions because moving in space requires only small, very delicate moves. It'd be easy to get out of control if you used too much force.

The view outside is so bright and clear, it's hard to believe that it's real. It's as if you're swimming in a bright ocean, but there's nothing to cloud your view. The light never dies.

On our last Hubble mission, [fellow NASA astronaut] Steve Smith and I would occasionally glance at each other and smile in recognition of the unique and special place we occupied at that moment. We were speeding over the Pacific Ocean, north of the Equator, at over five miles a second. I watched the Hawaiian Islands come into view. On the big island of Hawaii, I could imagine that I saw the observatory domes on Mauna Kea, including Keck I and II, the infrared telescopes, perched there on the top of the volcano. With a pair of 20x power binoculars I had seen the domes from space on my first flight in 1995. Time seemed suspended for 20 seconds as we floated past the islands.

What is most likely to go wrong during the course of a space walk?

Typically what happens is that people lose things. And once you've lost them there's no getting them back. You think something's tethered to you and it's not, and when you let go it's gone. Or you bump something that wasn't properly tethered and it's gone. Of course, you don't want to be gone yourself, so you're really sensitive to remaining roped up. We do that with a stainless steel wire and a tether reel. But there are a lot of operations where you run out of tether. You're at the end of your rope and you have to swap to a new rope, a new tether. The operation is critical because you don't want to become separated from the spaceship. For the past six or seven years we've had a little backpack with jets on it, so if you became separated, you have one chance to fire these little rockets and get yourself back.

Have these jetpacks been tested?

We've tested them in the payload of the shuttle and near the shuttle and sometimes even while tethered. We did one successful test where we flew around just to check out the new system and we kept the tether on just in case. But nobody's had to use it in battle yet.

Can you compare mountaineering expeditions to shuttle flights?

Going into space is very much like a mountaineering expedition. You have to pack everything up and take it with you. Of course, you have a "cell phone." You can talk to the ground for help. But they can't send up spare parts very easily. In addition to self-sufficiency, there are other similarities with expedition behavior: You have to be a good leader or a good follower. You have to be tolerant. And tolerance for adversity is a big part of space flight.

Also, wearing a space suit is like being in all of your winter gear. You have big gloves and you're trying to do fine motor-skill work, especially repairing the Hubble. I was having to work with connectors—little half-centimeter connectors—and you just have to learn how to handle them with these bulky gloves. The difference from climbing is that you can't put the glove in your teeth, pull it off, do the task, and put your hand back in the glove. You need that pressure system to stay alive.

Compared with big mountains, the vacuum of space is a much more hostile environment. If you tear your suit more than about a centimeter, it's not going to be able to keep up. You're going to die. It's 11 to 13 layers of coated Gore-Tex. It's inflated. It's a balloon. Inside there's a nice comfy 4.3 pounds per square inch (about two kilograms per square meter) of pure oxygen, and outside there's nothing.

So how does an astronaut-turned-roboticist find time to lead a climbing expedition?

It's funny. I asked the Chief of the Astronaut Office for a month off to go to Denali, and he suddenly pegged me as somebody who's nuts. I thought, I ride on the space shuttle and you think going to Denali is nuts?

The way it works when you're an astronaut is that, essentially, a year before a flight, you're prohibited from doing anything that would be considered dangerous. There's actually a standard list of things—competitive air racing, downhill skiing, and the like—but mountaineering is not on the list. However, there's a last paragraph that says you shouldn't do anything else that you could get injured doing, which would prevent you from recovering in time to fly.

I've flown four times in nine years. So I have these windows. In 1997 I flew in January, so getting off that flight I knew I had two or three years before I'd be flying again. That's when I first tried to put a climbing team together. All three of my Denali attempts have been during these windows.

How did you first become interested in climbing and in space travel?

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I fell in love with big snowstorms. You'd have a couple of days off from school. You could go into the backyard and build tunnels, snow caves, igloos. And when I was that seven-year-old playing in the snow, it was when we were sending the Gemini guys up. So I used to play astronaut. By the time I was 25 years old, long before I was into the astronaut program, I'd become a climber. One of the reasons I like winter mountaineering is that when you're all loaded up you're basically in a space suit. Many a time I'd be hiking up a trail in snowshoes or skis, pretending to be on another planet. When you have your big hood on, you can hear your breathing. It has that science-fiction film sound of breathing inside a space suit. And going in and out of a tent through a vestibule was my air lock.

Did your dream of becoming an astronaut ever seem out of reach?

There isn't really a natural path to becoming an astronaut, so I simply pursued my passion as a scientist and explorer of the natural world. In the back of my mind was always the desire to take that exploration to space. When I got my Ph.D. [in physics, from the University of Chicago, in 1988], I decided to send in an application for an astronaut position, simply because I knew I could never be an astronaut unless I applied. On the other hand, I couldn't imagine, at that time, doing anything more fun and worthwhile than astrophysics.

What are your climbing ambitions? Do you have plans to summit other mountains?

I'd love to go to the Himalaya. There are a lot of neat mountains there that I'd like to try or even just to trek. But Everest is, first of all, a huge time commitment, and the likely outcome is that you'll have to pay for it either with your life, which would be very bad, or through the loss of a few toes or something like that. I've had two invitations to go to Everest. And both times I turned them down, simply because, even though it would be very cool, it's just too high risk.

To read the full Q&A with astronaut and explorer John Grunsfeld, pick up the March issue of Adventure.

Photograph by NASA

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, March 2005

What's Scarier? Astronaut John Grunsfeld compares climbing Denali and blasting into space

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March 2005

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