Five Questions For … NASA Astronaut & Serial Inventor Scott Parazynski

Houston—As children, many of us believed we would have out-of-this-world experiences as adults. Scott Parazynksi is actually living that childhood wish.

As a NASA astronaut, Parazynski has flown on five shuttle missions and completed seven spacewalks, including at the International Space Station. A physician, he was the founding director of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Center for Polar Medical Operations in Antarctica. And as a serial inventor, Parazynski recently founded a firm to commercialize his innovations in medical devices, consumer products, and gear developed for extreme environments.

Parazynski’s thirst for adventure stemmed from his grade school and high school years spent in Dakar, Senegal; Beirut; and Tehran.

In this week’s “Five Questions For,” Parazynski speaks about his affinity for Thomas Edison, the importance of the right team when developing innovative technologies, and the likelihood of finding little green men out in space. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Xconomy: If you could go back in time and get five minutes with any major historical figure, who would it be, and what would you want to say to them?

Scott Parazynski: I’m fascinated by the inventive process. I’ve read about a number of prolific investors. Thomas Edison has been remarkably creative; it would be exciting to talk to someone of his caliber and get in their head. I would like to understand the creative process and how they identify those unmet needs and what’s their structured approach to solving problems.

His mind ran the full gamut; he’s obviously known for light of course … But he touched everything. That’s kind of the way I approach life. As I’m walking down the street, I wonder are there problems that I can help fix that people want to have fixed and will pay for?

X: What leadership lessons did you get from your parents?

SP: They were very adventurous. When I was 11 years old, because of their travel bug they decided we should go live overseas. We moved to West Africa. My dad was working with Boeing in an international marketing job. Incredible adventure, it turned out to be. We ended up in the Middle East and in Europe. It taught me that taking calculated risks is really important, and to be open to new challenges. I certainly had a great world view early in my life from the places that I’d been and people I’d met through my parents’ adventurous streak.

X: What’s your biggest failure as an entrepreneur?

SP: My biggest failure has been not being as attentive to the team as compared to the technology. A couple of times I became very enamored with a particular technology that I wanted to bring to market, and the team wasn’t the right team. The culture of the group wasn’t ideal. So now I’ve come to realize it’s almost more important who you’re working with than what you’re working on. Ideally, you find great synergy of great technology and great people. But occasionally it’s not all in sync. I’m very selective now with who I work with and what I work on.

I’ve seen this, having worked with some of the most successful teams on or off the planet at NASA. The values of team before self, transparency, integrity, self starter-ness, there’s a real commitment to making a difference. One of the things that NASA does extremely well is building teams and tackling really daunting challenges. That’s what I look for [now]. If just one person brings negative energy or self-centeredness, or is not fully committed to the mission, it can really have a negative effect on the success of a team. So spending a lot of time upfront getting to know the people you’re going to be working with is important. Building a startup is like a marriage.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

SP: I lived it. I wanted to be an astronaut since I could walk and talk. I grew up in the shadow of the space program. In the early years of the Saturn 5 rockets that went to the moon, I was present at those early launches. It was great to be able to pursue my own American dream and become an astronaut. I would’ve loved to set footprints down on Mars; it didn’t quite turn out that way.

We live in a really exciting time in which commercial companies are now opening up the frontier for many people, with Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin [planning to take] tourists up into space. It’s the barnstorming era of commercial space flight. Hopefully in 20 years, there will be crews on Mars. I’ll be watching from here on Earth.

X: OK, you’ve been in outer space so I have to ask. Do aliens exist?

SP: Well, I think we need to keep an open mind. I personally believe that life is probably more common than anyone ever would have thought. The conditions for life probably exist in several places in our own solar system. There certainly has been free-flowing water on Mars in the distant past.

Europa is a moon of one of our outer planets. It has an ice-encrusted surface and geothermal energy underneath it. There could be life forms under that. In the outer solar system, in distant space, we’re discovering exo-planets in other solar systems … Life is probably the rule rather than the exception. We haven’t had the chance to really explore there yet.

I don’t believe we’ve been visited by little green men. Humanity has only been transmitting for a few decades. The signal is weak and it’s only over a short period of time. [Alien life] may not even be carbon-based; it may be something totally unrecognizable to us today.

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