Space Medicine: Military docs help to explore the final frontier

Army Col. Drew Morgan, a graduate of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in 2013. Drew Morgan is also an alumnus of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
Army Col. Drew Morgan, a graduate of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in 2013. Drew Morgan is also an alumnus of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Space Medicine: Military docs help to explore the final frontier

Military Health System Communications Office

In order for man to walk on the moon, they must understand the wide-ranging effects that space travel can have on the body and prepare astronauts to endure them. Studying the physiological changes the body undergoes outside Earth’s atmosphere and keeping astronauts healthy during these missions has created a specialized area of study: space medicine.

The military has contributed to both space medicine and space travel throughout the decades, with doctors from the Military Health System providing insight and operational expertise to the health and safety of astronauts. Graduates of the Uniformed Services University for Health Sciences, or USU, are a prime example of these contributions, not only currently serving in space onboard NASA missions but stationed on the ground as flight surgeons to keep those astronauts in peak health before, during, and after their missions.

“There’s a uniqueness to what we do in space medicine,” said Dr. Richard Scheuring, medical operations flight surgeon at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and associate professor of military and emergency medicine at USU.

After unmanned spacecraft flights by the United States and the Soviet Union succeeded in the late 1950s and NASA’s first man-in-space program, Project Mercury, took shape in 1958, the role of space medicine became critical to mission success.

Despite this importance, space medicine was still a relatively unknown field for years according to Dr. Jonathan Clark, one of the first medical graduates of USU and current adjunct professor of neurology and space medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

“You can trace the term back to the 1940s,” Clark said, “but I found out about the field through pure luck.”

Originally a neurologist by trade, combining his experience as a naval flight officer with the medical training he received at USU opened Clark up to the steadily growing field of space medicine. His additional aerospace experience — and meeting his late wife Laurel who was beginning her career as a NASA astronaut — led him to a job in space medicine at the same organization.

Scheuring also discovered space medicine by chance. “I saw an ad in the back of the New England Journal of Medicine for a space medicine fellowship and I thought, that’s something I would really like to do.”

Since their humble introductions to space medicine, both Scheuring and Clark have had impacts on the field with their military expertise and published research. Scheuring and a team of collaborators co-wrote the military’s first textbook chapter on operating in space. The Borden Institute’s Fundamentals of Military Medicine is now required reading for students at USU.

“This was the first time we’ve written a book like this,” Scheuring said. “This is the expert reference manual for any doctor going into military medicine now. We’re really proud of this textbook.”

Clark’s contributions to space medicine were made as a member of the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Team, formed after the Columbia Disaster of 2003 in which the spacecraft disintegrated upon reentering the Earth’s atmosphere on its 28th space voyage. Clark’s wife Laurel was one of the seven astronauts lost during the mission. The Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, released in 2008, and a second report released in 2014, helped improve safety measures for astronauts exploring space.

“You don’t think about bad things happening in space,” Clark said, “but we did two really good reports [on the mission], which broached a whole new area of study that didn’t have a lot published on it yet.”

The influences of Clark and Scheuring on space medicine have not only shaped the current state of the field but its future too, as they both teach the subject to prospective medical students at their universities. Scheuring and Clark helped spearhead focuses in space medicine at USU and Baylor respectively, with interest in the field growing as a result of each program.

“At this stage of my career, it’s all about passing the torch,” Clark said of students in Baylor’s Center for Space Medicine. Clark’s program merges the research aspects of space medicine with education, allowing the students to collaborate with space science professionals.

“Our medical students get training in space medicine at all different year groups,” Clark said, “and what better way to integrate the next generation into the field than by having them solve real world problems?”

Scheuring’s program at USU also grooms students for careers in space medicine through aerospace clerkships at NASA and Operation Bushmaster. The simulated mass casualty exercise, required of all fourth-year medical students at USU as well as some students in the graduate school of nursing, gives the students hands-on experience in a military mission.

“The USU student is a very unique,” Scheuring said of his own mentees, “Very operationally focused, they may not have the experience yet but ¼ taking them out into the field, seeing them use all the skills they’ve learned in a very demanding, fatiguing, compromised environment and having them perform at high levels? It’s super rewarding.”

Scheuring thinks that this operational focus is an asset that the military brings to space medicine.

“Being book smart is one thing, but you have to be boots on the ground,” Scheuring said. “You need doctors that understand the mission, the environment, the physiology, all the things that help successfully execute that mission.”

As far as the future of space medicine and the military is concerned, Clark thinks there is still much to learn. “You have to learn everything you possibly can about space to truly understand how to make it safer for those who follow,” Clark said.

Clark hopes that his research on space accidents and the students he is mentoring will aid in the mission of safer space travel. Scheuring, on the other hand, is more unsure about the logistics of space medicine’s future. But he does know that his students will be a major part of it.

“I would like to think that we’ll have [Department of Defense] flight surgeons, space surgeons, and astronauts come out of this program one day where this was their first exposure to NASA,” Scheuring said. “You’re going to have a couple dozen graduates who have operational exposure, which otherwise never existed.”

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