2018 NASA placement

For 2018 UCL students Yousef Hyder and Fred Hill were chosen to travel to NASA. Fred Hill has written the following report outlining their time and experience whilst in Houston.

It is impossible to deny the importance of role Houston has played in the progress of manned spaceflight. Some of the most memorable words said during missions include Apollo 11’s "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed." or “Houston, we've had a problem.” from the commander of Apollo 13. So, it was with great excitement that in late June Yousef Hyder and I travelled to the Lone Star state to attend the Principles of Aviation and Space Medicine short course run by the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Students and doctors from all over the world, from as far as Asia and Australia, came together for one month to take part in the course at Houston, ; featuring lectures from leading experts and an impressive array of tours of aerospace facilities in the area. The course culminates in a day of individual presentations given by the students themselves, to an audience featuring leading aerospace physicians at NASA, certainly a nerve wracking experience.

Our first week eased us in with lectures covering a variety of topics from the history of spaceflight to the ExMC (exploration medical capability, the planning of long duration space missions). A brief break in the middle of the week allowed for 4th of July festivities, featuring a trip to the Kemah Bullet roller coaster and a night of festive fireworks. Thursday and Friday started our dive into some of the more specialised areas of space medicine; covering in flight nutrition, radiation exposure risks and even a discussion of how cryogenics could potentially feature in a long mission.

It’s incredibly important when considering space travel to consider all elements that make a successful mission. As medical professionals we naturally approach these problems from a purely physiological standpoint, but we learned during our second week to consider engineering factors that will be vital to protect the health of our spaceflight participants. For example, if you believe an ultrasound machine is critical to rapid diagnosis on a long-duration flight, you must ensure that it will be light enough, robust enough, and ideally built to serve multiple purposes; or it may be useless! As such, week 2 kicked off with everyone’s favourite Monday morning activity: maths. We learnt about some basic principles of kinematics and orbital mechanics and how they relate to human space physiology. The following day saw the highly anticipated commercial spaceflight series, where representatives from SpaceX, Boeing and Virgin Galactic (to name but a few), extolled the different visions for their companies; providing us a glimpse into the future and inspiration for our careers ahead of us.

Learning about human mistakes in flight is certainly enhanced by having made some mistakes yourself, as such we visited Flight Safety International and had a taste of a high-end flight simulator. Unfortunately, I landed somewhat short of the runway during my approach to Hong Kong and ended up in the bay! Yousef may have left with only minor injuries after landing adjacent to the runway in a bank of sand, but the same can’t be said of the plane. The jewel in the crown of week 2 was the opportunity to try on some genuine space suits, the Sokol and the Orlan, after learning about the life-support systems they contain. We only just managed to squeeze into these fairly rigid suits, but it was such an experience to feel like you were about to cram yourself into a Soyuz and blast off from Baikonur. The Sokol we pulled on was the very same one that Commander Peggy Whitson wore on her flight to the International Space Station!

Our third week at the Lunar and Planetary Institute returned us to more familiar territory, lectures on dysbarism, EVA operations, and how astronauts could deal with inflight medical emergencies. We were also privileged to receive a tour of the Johnson Space Centre. The tour covered the full spectrum of spaceflight history, from the old Apollo control centre, to the live ISS control room, to the ORION planning rooms (where the next phase of long-distance spaceflight missions are being planned). It wasn’t all pressing noses up to windows either, we got to try out the exercise equipment the astronauts currently use on the ISS; including the ARED and the COLBERT (which shows you how far the ISS travelled in the same time you were running)!

Our final week involved some intense preparation for the personal presentations, but we still had time for two more tours. The first, to the Ad Astra rocket company. They have been working on developing an electromagnetic thruster for use on the next generation of space vehicles. We were fortunate that we visited the facility while they were undergoing a firing test; so we were allowed to peer into the vacuum chamber and witness the blue haze that was ionised particles flying out the back of the thruster.

The final tour was perhaps the one I had been looking forward to most of all, the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Here, in a pool filled with over 20 million litres of water, astronauts prepare for their Extra Vehicular Activities (EVAs) on a full-scale model of the ISS. EVAs are one of the most perilous aspects of spaceflight, and the astronauts will train for well over 100 hours to ensure that the 8 hours they spend on the outside of the ISS will go as smoothly as possible. Unfortunately, getting into the pool itself was far beyond the scope of our tour, but we were allowed to try out the flight and dive chambers that can be found in the same building. Our experience in the former involved a simulated flight to 25,000 feet whilst wearing high pressure oxygen masks (for which I had to sacrifice my beard to achieve a tight seal) and then a 5-minute hypoxic experience. With saturations dropping as low as 60%, everyone responded differently to the challenge; with reactions as varied as euphoria to almost unconscious by the end. The dive chamber was a more sedate affair, a trip equivalent to 10m underwater and a demonstration of the various effects pressure has on fizzy drinks, condensation and gas trapped in the body, all to help us understand the physiology of acute decompression sickness.

With the last visit finished, all eyes turned to the last day. It had been a fantastic month, filled with experiences and encounters with some truly inspirational people. The final hurdle was the group presentation. Yousef spoke on the potential impact of planetary dust on the human body; would a Martian version of silicosis scupper any long-term colonisation plans? I covered how astronauts lose their skills over the course of a mission, is there even a point to a physician-astronaut if they can’t remember what to do in a crisis? All the talks lived up to their promise and covered a huge variety of topics; and it was great to see the other participants we’d been getting to know giving talks on the areas of aerospace medicine that they found interesting with everyone demonstrating how much they had learnt over the last 4 weeks.

The four weeks we spent in Houston absolutely flew by. Everything from the lecturers, to the tours, to the students we were learning alongside have impressed upon me that aerospace medicine has a bright future ahead of it; and that doctors from all over the world will have the opportunity to get further involved as the field moves forward.