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NASA medical officer talks space

NASA_01The United States space program has changed, but it is still very much alive.

“People ask me, ‘Smith, do you still have a job since the space shuttle went away?’” Dr. Smith Johnston, medical officer and flight surgeon for NASA Medical Operations, said during a presentation Thursday. “We’ve never been busier — and our budget’s never been lower.”

Johnston gave a public presentation Thursday evening in the North Lamar High School auditorium after a reception hosted by NLHS AVID students. He was the guest of the Lamar-Delta County Medical Society and Dr. Mark Campbell.

“I used to work for NASA, and I worked with Smith for about 20 years,” Campbell said. “We twisted his arm and got him to come down.”

Johnston will address student at North Lamar and Paris high schools Friday. NLHS assemblies are scheduled at 9:15 a.m. for ninth and tenth graders and 10:15 a.m. for juniors and seniors.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for our students to get real world knowledge from one of the greatest experiences in our nation — the space program,” NLHS Principal Clint Hildreth said.

Paris High School health occupation students and advanced placement and dual credit students will hear Johnston’s presentation this afternoon.

“I think Dr. Johnson will have a lot of interesting insights about how the medicine they study with astronomers will apply to those of us who will never go into space,” said Dr. Amanda Green, secretary-treasurer of the Lamar-Delta County Medical Society.

NASA_02Stephen Smallwood, one of North Lamar’s AVID teachers, said the experience provides a unique opportunity for students.

“As an AVID site team, we look for opportunities to collaborate with community resources,” he said. “We were lucky in that we not only had a community organization we were able to work with, we had an international specialist.”

Johnston stressed that his talks in Paris are personal, not as part of his duties with NASA.

The flight surgeons’ job is to find problems in space exploration and develop countermeasures and environmental monitors for platforms like the space station.

“We take the healthiest people in the world, and we get to take care of them in the some of the funkiest and most unique environments,” Johnston said. “We’re basically a clinic. Not only do we take care of all the astronauts, but we also take care of the retired astronauts.”

For example, he and Campbell had to help figure out how to perform medical procedures in a zero-gravity environment. Johnston showed pictures of them on a plane in a parabolic flight, practicing on pigs.

“Mark will go down in history as the man who figured out how to perform surgery in zero gravity,” he said. “I’ll be the man who performed mouth-to-snout resuscitation on a pig.”

Part of Johnston’s job has been to develop medical operations for an international program.

“They said ‘go build it’ with five different agencies,” he said. “When I certify someone to fly with NASA, they have to get a blessing from the other agencies.”

NASA_03Going from earth’s gravity to none and back again can have a profound affect on the human body, including loss of bone, muscle and bodily fluids. People grow an inch or two in space due to the spine stretching out. Back on earth, that has shown a tendency to cause spinal disc problems. Even the suits designed to protect people can be hard on them, particularly the hands and shoulders.

One or two of the seven shuttle crew members usually suffered from major impairment upon return, Johnston said.

“They’re not ill or injured, but they are deconditioned,” he said. “We have some countermeasures. Some people come back stronger than when they left — that’s what we learned from space medicine.”

Longer missions have other issues, including isolation, debris and exposure to radiation outside the protection of the earth’s magnetic field. Not that we should avoid those longer missions, such as a trip to Mars.

“Eventually our sun’s going to give out, and we need to get off the planet,” Johnston said. “That’s why we need to explore and develop a warp drive.”

We need to go back to the moon before going to Mars, he said. The trip will require six months each way, plus several months on the surface. Humans have only spent 75 hours on the moon in total, he said. The longest shuttle mission was 18 days. A typical tour on the space station is six months, and a one-year tour is about to begin.

In addition, investments in space exploration generally give a nine-to-one return. A great deal of modern technology from Velcro to joysticks to x-ray systems derive from the space program.

The medical lessons have applications on earth, as well, from Antarctic expeditions to submarine crews.

Johnston received his bachelor of science in biology from Emory University. He completed his residencies in internal and aerospace medicine from Wright State University, where he received a master of science degree in aerospace medicine and was chief resident in internal medicine.

He is a faculty member at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He presently serves on the board of directors for Houston Medical Centers Hospice and Palliative Care System.

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