Who takes care of the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS)? What are the most common health issues that astronauts face day-to-day aboard the ISS? These are some of the questions that four medical students representing the Aerospace Medicine Student Interest Group (SIG) got to explore in-depth in a recent visit to NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Generous funding from the Vermont Space Grant Consortium enabled me and three other second-year medical students to participate in a two-day private tour and lecture series at Johnson Space Center and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI). An early highlight of the trip included a visit to Mission Control, where department heads interact continuously with the astronauts aboard the ISS. This included a visit to the old Mission Control, home to much of the ground control for the Cold War-era Apollo missions. We also toured the hanger for the Saturn V rocket, and received lectures from NASA’s chief microbiologist and head immunologist, who described novel findings from recent missions illustrating the immunosuppressive properties of microgravity and ionizing radiation.
Our time at Johnson Space Center coincided with the start of the Aerospace Medicine clerkship for visiting fourth-year medical students at NASA. These students have a general interest in space-based medicine, and aspire to become flight surgeons or astronauts. They’re paired with active flight surgeons or NASA biomedical investigators, and are provided with a research project and a work space during their stay. Our two days were spent partly with the clerkship students, who gave them invaluable advice regarding which residencies are best suited for careers in aerospace medicine, and how to apply for the elective month at NASA in their final year.
On our final day in Houston, we toured the mock-up International Space Station, Suyoz aircraft, and shuttle cabins. We also made a stop in downtown Houston at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), an off-shoot federal government agency dedicated to investigating the effects of long-term space travel on the human body. Interestingly, most of the novel findings that have come out of the NSBRI have found applications for life on Earth, and not just for the astronauts up on the International Space Station. This is one of the many unexpected benefits of funding basic science research. Perhaps most notably was the finding years ago that certain illuminated screens, such as the LCDs on most laptops and smartphones, are directly contraindicated to a good night’s rest and can alter sleep-wake cycles. Although initially a discovery that enabled productivity and efficiency for astronauts, it has consequently become a profound finding and altered the way doctors on Earth practice medicine and advice their patients.
The three days in Houston were a whirlwind of a trip, but we all had to get back to studying pulmonary pathology for the Cardiovascular, Renal and Respiratory Systems course. Maybe, just maybe, a few of our students will go on to join the Aerospace Medicine Clerkship at NASA, and eventually join the ranks of flight surgeons and astronauts themselves.