Human Exploration Is Risky. Get Used To It.

Keith's note: There has been a lot of discussion of late about risk and safety - COVID-19, launching people on commercial vehicles, etc. There has also been a lot of talk about going back to the Moon too - to pick up the exploration of that world from where we left off half a century ago. The PR pictures are pretty and the videos are inspiring. But the exploits of Apollo still have an alternate reality to them - as if those people were somehow different than we are. In the end, human exploration is inherently risky. It was then. It is now. It will be in the future. And the people who set off on these expeditions to other worlds need to be prepared for things you can't easily prepare for. In Pat Rawlings iconic painting this injured lunar explorer just happened to have an ambulance nearby with two EMTs. That is not usually the case on expeditions.

Things can happen quickly on an expedition to remote, hazardous locations - even when you think you are safe. On this date, 1 May 2009 Astronaut Scott Parazynski and I were standing next to our tents at Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Before us lay the massive Khumbu icefall and the shoulder of Mt. Everest. Scott was preparing to climb the mountain. I was there to do education and public outreach. I am a space biologist and Scott is a M.D. so we were also doing a little astrobiology field research on the side for a friend at NASA.

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Click on images to enlarge

We had a commercial sponsor for our spectrophotometer (our tricorder) so we needed to get some promo shots of it for the company to use. I picked the icefall as a good backdrop to use. We were standing 2 km or so from its edge. It was 11:28:25 am local time. I took a series of pictures of Scott with the spectrophotometer. (see images above) Suddenly we heard a loud cracking/roaring noise and turned toward our left to look at the west side of the icefall. Something was happening. I got off one still photo and then switched my camera to video mode. What unfolded was widely described as the largest avalanche ever recorded on Everest. I did not plan for this. It just happened.

Luckily no one was killed. Alas, a week later, while Scott was climbing on the icefall a similar avalanche from the same location happened. I did not know what his status was for half an hour. Scott's climbing partner might have been killed had it not been for some quick thinking by his sherpa. In the middle of the area hit hardest by the avalanche a western climber was pulled out of a crevasse. His sherpa was not so lucky. I just happened to record that too. My footage has been used on multiple TV shows and the feature film "Sherpa." Until 2015 when some more graphic footage of another avalanche made news after a massive earthquake my video had an unfortunate notoriety to it. No more.

In 2009 Scott and I were standing where our outfitter had set up camp amidst the small temporary nomadic village of a thousand people at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall. Everyone thought this to be a safe place since the constant avalanches (you hear smaller ones constantly day and night) never reach this location. At one point Scott and I took some promotional shots for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education (we were both on the board of directors). Again, we did so in front of our tents.

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In 2015 as I analyzed where the fatal avalanche came from I was shocked to learn that it was a hanging piece of snow between two peaks that let lose. Had we been in the same location by our tents we'd have stood an excellent chance of being killed. Again - the experts all thought this was a safe location in 2009. Things change. People camp elsewhere now.

Expeditions to other worlds are going to need to be prepared to adapt to dangers like this - both the obvious ones and the unexpected ones. NASA needs to start working on a broader expeditionary mindset wherein the agency - and the public - are taught to better understand the risks as well as the benefits - of human exploration.

You can read more about our Everest adventures at "My Star Trek Episode at Everest".

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on May 1, 2020 1:05 PM.

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