With NASA restructuring itself to get back to the moon and tickets for sightseeing trips into space on sale now, you might very well be ahead of the curve to keep an eye on the final frontier as a medical field in which to specialize.
What would it take to train to become a space doctor?
Based on trends in technology, mission timelines, and the projected growth of the private aerospace industry, here’s Version 1.0 of our handy pamphlet on the subject…
1. Become a medical doctor (duh..)
Lots of career astronauts started out as medical doctors – especially NASA mission payload specialists. What NASA and other space agencies don’t have yet are doctors who actually see patients in space. If you’re in med school now, you’ll likely be able to eye a career in space medicine by the time you start interning and actually do space medicine by the time you become a doctor.
2. Become an astronaut
Some space doctors may operate similar to present-day space-agency flight surgeons: remotely or as a basic-trainer for astronauts. But when telemedicine and force-feedback remote robotics don’t cut it, companies and governments will begin to need true “astro-doctors”: physicians trained as astronauts. Such doctors in space might be employed on large, long-term missions to orbit or the Moon. They could also be on-site general practitioners on privately-funded space ventures such as orbital touring ships or hotels.
3. Master the joystick
The first thing you’d notice about cracking someone open in zero (or micro) gravity is that you would quickly have blood and possibly other fluids flying all over the place. As a result, a Yale study suggests the only way to do surgery in space is with minimally-invasive robots (either remotely or in-person.) Such tools are already being tested in simulated zero-G surgeries. On Earth, reduced mess, smaller entry scars, and shorter recovery times from minimally-invasive surgery are revolutionary. In space, those advances are the only things that would make surgery possible at all.
4. Get to know your patients’ environment
Between the sweaty air mixed with the scent of rubber, burnt wiring and off-gassing (which is how astronauts describe the smell of space stations), lunar regolith (ultra-fine soil that gets into everything human or human-made on the moon), and the insanity-inducing 24.5 hour day-night-cycle on Mars that’s so-close-but-so-far-away from Earth’s, space doctors would be well-served to study-up on ailments and conditions unique to patients in space.
5. Enter the “vomit comet”
No, you didn’t hear wrong: That’s the name for NASA’s modified McDonnell-Douglas airliner that makes parabolic flights (wild ascents, followed by nose-dive descents) to simulate zero-G.
At the top of the roller-coaster ramp, passengers experience about 20 seconds of weightlessness as the plane reaches its highest altitude and then pitches down. Such craft are the easiest way to simulate zero-G on (or, er, near) Earth for space surgery training purposes.
6. Are you ready for swimsuit season?
Another way to train for zero-G medical procedures would be in a neutral buoyancy tank: A gigantic swimming pool where swimmers wear weights to make sure they neither float to the surface nor sink to the bottom. NASA’s tank is the largest swimming pool in the world and contains a full-scale model of the International Space Station: More than enough room for a little triple bypass surgery…
7. Surgery in sections
Earth-bound doctors working with patients in space, or space-bound doctors working with colleagues on Earth will need to get used the need to operate in sections due to time delays (a few seconds on the Moon, a few minutes on Mars.) These delays would necessarily force both parties to stop and wait for decisions, opinions and next-steps: Much like NASA’s Mars rovers, which are sent instructions for one movement at a time. Instructions for the next baby steps are sent after controllers confirm the last communications were received and acted-on.
8. Get ready to improvise
Space is really a new frontier in more ways than one: Even if a doctor is available in space, that doctor will almost certainly be the only medical professional for a few thousand miles or more for the conceivable future. Your assistance in the orbital ER, your closest match to an Earth-bound colleague will likely be a fellow astronaut with rudimentary medic training…or a robot. Don’t forget extra Duracells!
9. Palliative care in spaaaace…
Recent thinking has postulated that some diseases – certain cancers, for example – could be kept at bay by low-gravity.
Add to that the common-sense of zero-G being kinder to everything from osteoporosis to old age and you’ve got a thriving practice.
Of course, one would have to find a gentler way to blast these fragile folk into space in the first place. Come to think of it, there’s another industry waiting to happen…
But you can also encounter airplane-like bumps and pitches occasionally in orbit.
To prepare for such contingencies, a team of University of Cincinnati doctors studying space surgery practiced on a dummy while in a van being driven erratically.
11. Make friends with your local billionaire venture capitalist
Remember, the future of space belongs to the corporate world. Successful space physicians will have to go knocking at the doors of NASA, the European Space Agency and the like, but also Virgin Galactic, Space X and other privately-owned space launch, adventure, and research groups. If you’ve done your homework, maybe those folks will actually come looking for you…
Image: Scaled Composites