14 April 2012

NASA Flight Surgeons - Ensuring the Health and Safety of Astronauts

Astronauts on space missions have lots of responsibility. They are tasked to work with million dollar equipment and do complicated scientific experiments.

They have to make sure that they are alert and healthy facing the rigors of space.

An astronaut cannot afford being sick during a space mission. When an astronaut faces health concerns, he or she may be reassigned somewhere else or even "grounded". And in space, even the slightest health concern may jeopardize the mission and the whole crew.

NASA Flight surgeons are there to ensure that this happens as rarely as possible or not at all. Astronauts are a very rare breed and a prime specimen. They go to rigorous and extensive training, taught highly specialized skills, and have millions invested in their expertise, and it is in NASA's best interest not to replace them.

Sean Roden, NASA Flight Surgeon explains, "It's the job of the flight surgeons to keep everyone on flight status," he said. "We have such a unique patient population with such unique skills. We try to keep everybody flying. We just don't ground very many people..."

In the video, NASA Flight Surgeon Ed Powers discusses how flight doctors work with crew members on board the station to keep the astronauts healthy. Powers also discusses the complications in diagnosing patients from far away in space as well as the effect of space medicine to life here on earth.

Video: NASA Doctor Discusses Providing Medical Care to Astronauts in Space

The flight surgeon's job involves a variety of duties. These include providing medical care for astronauts and their families. Flight surgeons sit in Mission Control and talk with the astronauts in space. They perform annual medical exams of current and former astronauts. Flight surgeons provide medical training to shuttle and space station crews, evaluate medicines that may be useful in spaceflight, and more. Roden, for example, also works with aircraft operations, providing some of the same services for instructors and pilots of Johnson Space Center's aircraft operations division.

Flight surgeon Ed Powers explained that crewmembers receive extensive medical training so that they will be prepared for any problems that may arise during the flights. Even in an emergency that would require the crew to leave the station, it would be hours before they could receive help, so the astronauts are trained to deal with anything from a small cut to a heart attack. In addition to receiving classroom training, the astronauts can practice procedures at local hospitals. As training leaders, the flight surgeons frequently serve as guinea pigs: Letting astronauts learn their way around needles is one example.


On 06 May 1978, Six NASA physicians, arriving for the annual scientific sessions of the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA) met according to prior plan in the lobby of the New Orleans Hilton. They talked about an old idea about forming a society for physicians who had helped with the space programs throughout the years. The next day, they sent a hand written memorandum to the Aerospace Medical Association Executive Council requesting recognition and affiliate membership. The Council approved their request.

Established as an affiliate organization of the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA), the purpose of the Society Of NASA Flight Surgeons are:
  • To advance the science, art and identity of space medicine by defining and delineating its province, roles and responsibilities in human exploration of space and by furthering the bases for future developments and performance within the subspecialty.
  • To identify and document the historical achievements and precedents of those contributing individuals and their prior programs and for the present and posterity to plan, guide, encourage and otherwise assist development of operational excellence.
  • To promote camaraderie within the group and to foster the ideals of prevention, protection and prosperity regarding life and well being of space travelers.
  • To identify and effect action to resolve problems associated with future space flight.


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