Unlocking the secrets of microgravity: What a doctor in space has learned
You can start with nothing and end up with everything.
It's really all about what's up here and what you envision yourself doing, and what you want to do
My name is Dr. Serena Aunon-Chancellor, NASA Astronaut, just returned from the Space Station in December of last year.
What is it like when that rocket takes off?
It's actually a really smooth ride, very dynamic transitions between the stage cut offs of the engines.
But other than that, you were really focused on this timing sequence 8 minutes and 40 seconds to get to orbit and so you're following all your procedures, making sure there are no errors or malfunctions.
I think the neatest parts when the shroud finally comes off from around the capsule and look out and go.
It's certainly it's awesome to just flow.
And kind of fly everywhere, your brain really doesn't know what to do because there's really no up or down anymore.
If you can translate and move around on the ceiling on the walls of the floors for the first time.
I tried to do that I would just turn myself in circles because it wasn't sure where I was, and my crewmates like to play store just laughed at me because I wasn't used to operating in that 3D.
Always up or down here on earth, whereas there is no up or down there.
So, after a while though, it became so natural to move around.
In the ISS, you could lightly touch off things, lightly come around the corner, and you actually become pretty graceful.
How did we make the space station more human?
In a way I didn't expect, and that was through music.
And when you live in a very sterile environment where there aren't many windows, except for our beautiful cupola, but you have to be there.
You don't feel the wind.
You don't feel the rain.
It's a very just machine driven environment with a constant low hum.
Breaks that apart completely.
Doc undocking confirmed
The vehicle itself is re-entering through the atmosphere and you can see that plasma through the windows.
Very dynamic certainly when the parachutes open because the vehicles suddenly decelerating.
So it's a little bit like the gnarliest rollercoaster ride you've ever been on, but at the same time you're ecstatic, because the parachutes open and that's a good thing.
Well, I've been driven since I was eight years old, so to become an astronaut was not a new dream that suddenly popped up when I was 20.
And that drives always work for NASA in whatever regard and eventually become an astronaut was always there.
And I just kind of trusted the process.
Actually majored in electrical engineering at the George Washington University, but it's also pre med at the time.
So after finishing that degree, I went to medical school at the University of Texas.
Health center at Houston, now McGovern Medical School.
When I was onboard the space station last year, from June through December, we did a lot of medical research that I think people don't know about.
One of those was research in cancer, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's.
And I think people believe the science we do on the space station only relates to space exploration.
And they don't realize How much it matters to medical care of everyday living here on Earth.
And I was most proud, really, of the cancer research that we did.
Endothelial cells are cells that line your blood vessels.
Everybody has them, they're inside your arteries and your veins.
And what scientists discovered was that in space, onboard the space station, endothelial cells really liked to grow, and they grow for a long time.
When scientists try and grow them on Earth, they can't get them to grow for that long cuz they're growing in a flat plate.
And it's much harder and it's like the cells don't like to be there.
But up in space, they love to be there.
So what's the benefit of that?
Well, when you have an endothelial cell that can grow for a long period of time, that then allows scientists to come in and test chemotherapy on the endothelial cell Every tumor needs a blood supply, and that blood supply is formed by those cells.
So, scientists are trying to find medications to help kill that tumor's blood supply.
And, they are better able to do that in the space environment.
I think what my medical Background really came into play was when I was looking at some of these medical experiments.
As a practicing physician, I still have patients with a lot of these diseases.
And so, because we interact with the scientists on almost a daily basis, I was better able to look at the science, look at the cells under the microscope, and help them find the data they needed to complete their research Search.
So the human body in space, it's interesting.
They liken us to a rapidly aging population.
So for example, we lose bone mass at a pretty quick rate up there.
Similar to osteoporosis you see here on the ground, but even faster.
And so it's interesting because they can look at us, and maybe even test certain medications.
With the sort of bone loss that we have, that also impacts millions of Americans on the ground, who also have osteoporosis.
Now this is difficult for us because six months in low Earth orbit, we recover pretty well.
Once we come back.
those problems get even more challenging once we try and push out towards Mars and we're looking at to the three year mission Personally, I think you need a physician on that mission, one train and a wide range of things, but they're probably going to need some sort of assistance, medical assistance or clinical decision making assistance with them on that mission, whether that's some sort of computer or software program to assist them.
I don't think we are where Star Trek was where they had the.
You know, virtual reality medical assistant that will pop up and help you diagnose, but we have that in software.
I think the more difficult challenging part is trying to figure out what equipment are we going to take?
How small can we get it?
And do we think we have everything we need?
NASA wants to get back to the moon by 2024.
And people think that's impossible.
It's not impossible.
We want boots on the ground.
Kind of with a minimal configuration.
That's our start.
Then we create the sustainable presence on the lunar surface.
Building a lunar habitat.
Testing our engineering.
We try and make sure that we know how to live off the Earth, prior to heading our towards Mars.
I would rather have all those techniques down, even things like how to cement, At up there in microgravity, how do we build structures?
Does our toilet work the same?
Are we ready to go?
How is our vehicle?
How about our lander?
Making sure all that engineering technology is as robust as it can be before we push off for a destination that's much, much further out.
I think one of the most important takeaways from what the space program is doing right now is that it's continually trying to advance human presence in space.
And whatever your background is, whether it's science, it could be chemistry, engineering.
You're a physician, you're in the military, get involved with your country's space program wherever you are across the world.
This is not a United States effort, this is a global effort and we've never seen us as us working in isolation.
We don't do that on the Space Station.
I flew with Russians I flew with, Germans I flew with, Canadians.
This is an absolutely global effort.
Everybody should be interested.
Everybody should be involved.