Everest On Orbit
By Keith Cowing
This article first appeared in Climbing Magazine, No. 135, February/March 1993, pages 41-42.

A piece of one great frontier carried off into the next? Among the personal items Jim Bagian, an astronaut and climber, carried during the SLS-1 (STS-40) mission in 1991 was a small souvenir rock collected by his friend Tom Hornbein in 1963 on the first ascent of the West Ridge of Mount Everest,

"My rock was higher than Everest!" says Hornbein with amusement. In fact climbing and space exploration have been blending for years. Climbing gear has found its way into space ("on-orbit") and space programs, in theory, in practical application of equipment, and in whimsical application of prank.

The two fields share much: both are risky and you get to do and see things no one has ever done before. Teamwork is essential - only a few people actually get to stand on the summit or fly in space yet a whole league is there in spirit.
Image Source

Mount Everest photographed by the STS-66 crew members aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis from 165 nautical miles above the Earth. Also seen are Cho Oyu (8,153 meters) northwest of Everest.

There is also the circuitous answer you get when you ask a climber or astronaut why he (or she) does what he does. No two answers are the same, and no answer is quite complete. Bagian, an engineer and M.D. has taught snow and ice rescue techniques on Mount Hood, and participated in the Denali Medical Research Project. In August 1981 he hit upon an idea involving the Johnson Space Center's tallest office building. Astronauts have a historic appreciation for a well-crafted prank, and Bagian decided to rappel down the mine-floor building, knock on a window, show a message, and disappear.

As usual, this NASA mission was complex. Bagian donned clothing worn by astronauts and janitors alike - coveralls - and a patch from the cleaning contractor. He duped Security by saying he needed to wash the top-floor windows, and attached his rope to stanchions on the ledge outside the windows.

Photo: NASA. Humans on Mars are likley to use climbing techniques to explore its system on four-mile-deep canyons.

Other items of automatic interest to climbers: Olympus Mons, on Mars, is the largest mountain in the solar system, 300 miles across its base and 90,000 feet (17 miles) high; and Miranda, a moon of the planet Uranus, contains six- to seven-mile-high ice cliffs.

At -200 degrees Celsius, the ice behaves much like rock.

His rope, hanging free, only reached to about a floor and a half above the ground, but he had calculated it would stretch enough to just touch the ground. Doffing his coveralls for the superman suit underneath, he rapped off, knocked on the target window, waved the sign, and then sped to the ground "kinda like you would if you were falling - for effect of course" Accomplices above released the rope, but by then someone had called the police.

Eventually, Bagian got caught. He was summoned to a meeting and admonished by John Young, veteran astronaut and present chief of the Astronaut Office. After the formalities, Young crumpled the written reprimand and threw it in a waste basket, smiled and said "I thought that was hot".

Image sourceNASA. STS-40 Mission Specialist (MS) James P. Bagian floats through the Spacelab Life Sciences 1 (SLS-1) module aboard the Earth-orbiting Columbia, Orbiter Vehicle (OV) 102. Behind Bagian is the hatch and spacelab (SL) tunnel that lead to OV-102's crew compartment.
Climbing has also been a source of hardware and techniques for NASA. Last year, while visiting Kennedy Space Center, I watched technicians practicing how to load research specimens into the Space Shuttle. The techs wore modified harnesses from a fighter jet's ejection seat and a hang gliding rig, and clipped locking carabiners into steel cables.

Later, they told me how uncomfortable they were hanging around for three or four hours at a time. As a climber, I had one thought: hangdogging. As soon as I got home I sent the techs a Black Diamond catalog. The last I heard, they would have liked to buy several harnesses - but would have had to purchase a prohibitively large batch of dozens to be tested according to government (rather than UIAA) specs.

At the bottom of the world, Bob Wharton (climber) has introduced climbing technology to NASA's Exobiology projects in Antarctica. Wharton's work includes diving in lakes covered with as much as 18 feet of ice and sampling the microbial mats that grow on the darkened lake bottoms. Ice divers, like ice climbers, need to tie in at all times. Wharton originally used a bowline on a coil. Now the divers use harnesses and locking carabiners. Further, to make holes in the thick ice packs, the divers secure their special ice-melting machinery to climbers' ice screws. To get in and out of the water, they use standard crevasse ladders.

Wharton and other climbers, among them Christian Straight of NASA' s Ames Research Center, have advised NASA on the sorts of skills and equipment that could be needed on Mars. Such missions might well require crews to be proficient in mountaineering skills; the cover of a recent NASA Exploration report shows an astronaut rappelling over the side of a Martian gorge.

The Moon has seen no true mountaineering (yet). Early missions focused mostly on getting people on and off the Moon, and the last thing mission managers wanted was an astronaut falling over the edge of some lunar cliff. Later Apollo mission plans called for some daring lunar mountaineering, but budget cuts by President Richard Nixon forced NASA to cancel Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20.

Apollo 18 would have landed next to the lava tubes that form Hyginus Rille and lowered astronauts to the bottom of a gorge several hundred feet deep. Apollo 20 would have landed in the midst of the crater Copernicus, 57 miles across with a series of 2700 foot peaks in the center surrounded by a rim towering 2.5 miles above its floor. (Talk about first-ascent possibilities).

The cuts also changed the destination of the Apollo 16 mission. The original landing site was Tycho, a prominent crater 54 miles across and three miles deep with a central peak 7500 feet high. The crew planned to winch down the crater's side on the end of a rope. John Young was the commander of Apollo 16 and would have been one of the surface crew on the Tycho Rappel: hot for sure.

Finally, Jim Bagian observes where the two fields diverge. "When you're climbing you have control over your fate", he says. "When you're sitting on the pad, it's like Russian roulette - you just learn to accept that part of it. The rest of the time you're just plain busy." So busy, in fact, that others who had flown told him he wouldn't readily remember what happened during his flight. "They were right. To be honest, I remember more about my time on McKinley than I do about either of my missions"