NASA flight surgeon researches effects of space travel on human body

Astronaut Reid Wiseman, on left, and flight surgeon Blake Chamberlain prepare to fly to Stennis Space Center in the T-38 in September 2016. Chamberlain flies with astronauts to see them in an operational environment and experience being part of the crew. (Blake Chamberlain)

Blake Chamberlain has one of the most unique jobs in the solar system.

The BYU alumnus is a NASA flight surgeon, a physician who trains with and monitors astronauts’ health both in and out of space.

Keeping an astronaut happy and healthy in space comes with its own unique challenges. Chamberlain said astronauts need to work out at least two hours a day in order to keep muscle from wasting away. Chamberlain gets closer to his patients than most any other physician by working with an astronaut for about two years before takeoff. He also spends months monitoring the astronaut’s health from hundreds of thousands of miles away while his patient is in space. Following landing, Chamberlain works for another few months to help his astronaut acclimate back to earth life.

Part of Chamberlain’s job is making sure his astronauts follow through with this plan. However, he said this kind of regime poses a challenge to something like visiting Mars.

“We’re going to have a hard time keeping them healthy on their way to Mars because it is a small capsule,” Chamberlain said. “We won’t have those exercise machines that we have on a space station.”

Chamberlain also said a major concern for such a mission is protecting astronauts from radiation. Such radiation causes a higher susceptibility for cancer even in astronauts who have spent a few months in space, let alone an entire trip to Mars.

NASA estimates with its current technology that it would take about eight months just to get to Mars. The person who has lived the longest in space is Scott Kelly, who stayed in orbit for a year. Kelly broke the record last March.

Scientists are still delving into the physical toll of living in space. NASA is currently studying the differences between Scott Kelly and his twin, Mark Kelly, who stayed on earth and acts as a comparison to Scott.

Chamberlain had the opportunity to assist with this particular project, although his colleague, Stevan Gilmore, was Kelly’s assigned flight surgeon. Both Chamberlain and Gilmore said being flight surgeons allows them to double as both physicians and researchers.

“There are some things that we do medically that are monitoring for research, and there are some things that are just research, and there are some things that are both,” Chamberlain said. “One of the dual things right now is we’ve noticed some changes in the eyes lately of astronauts.”

Chamberlain said astronauts are getting folds in the back of their retinas and swelling in their optic disk. He said these changes in the eyes and the fact that astronauts burn more calories in space than on earth are two phenomena he is interested in studying.

“I can’t figure out why that is. You’d think they’d use less calories, but they burn more calories keeping their weight steady more than they do on the earth,” Chamberlain said.

Although the research aspect is both interesting and important to Chamberlain, he said ensuring the safety of the astronauts is his main job. He said he does it not just because it’s in the job description, but also because of the genuine friendship flight surgeons develop with their patients.

Chamberlain said flight surgeons train with their assigned astronaut, eat dinner with the astronaut’s family and even stay in two-week quarantine with astronauts right before the launch. They check in with their patients through satellite phone and even advocate for the astronauts down on earth.

“During their flight, we’re their advocate. If they’re planning on working (the astronauts) during the weekend, we make sure they get their weekends off,” Chamberlain said. “We’re kind of an unofficial voice for them.”

And in some cases, the flight surgeons even risk their lives for astronauts. Karen Chamberlain, wife of Blake Chamberlain, recalled one time when he called her right before NASA was supposed to travel to the landing sight of one of the shuttles. At the time, there was a serious blizzard in Kazakhstan, where the astronauts would be landing.

“He called me saying they wouldn’t even let the media go,” Karen said. “He called me and said, ‘Karen, I just want you to know that I’m going and only a few of us are going. I love you.’”

Chamberlain also agreed it was one of the more serious and frightening experiences of his career.

“They said, ‘Sorry, it’s too dangerous to send 13 helicopters, but we are sending two and you get to be in one of them.’ And I was sitting right behind the gas tank,” he said.

Chamberlain said he is accustomed to emergency situations, as he has a background in emergency medicine.

“He’s a very patient and relaxed person, and I think that translates well in this environment because you have to make decisions without knowing all the information sometimes,” Gilmore said.

Being far from his patients certainly is a challenge, but it is one Chamberlain finds thrilling. His wife said he often tells her, “ER is my work, and being a flight surgeon is my hobby.”

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