A Closer Look

To Boldly Go

Vital Signs » Summer 2011
NASA photo ISS027-E-012224 April, 12 2011

Aerospace Residency grads serve on the front lines of space exploration

They populate space programs around the globe and have even gone into space. They are key figures in aviation-safety agencies and vital to the operations of commercial airlines.

They are the physician graduates of Wright State University’s 33-year-old residency program in aerospace medicine, a specialty in which residents rotate through, among others, the NASA Kennedy and Johnson space centers.

Wright State Boonshoft School of Medicine’s NASA-funded aerospace medicine residency program, established in 1978, promotes the health and well-being of pilots, astronauts, and other air and space travelers. It is the oldest civilian aerospace medicine training program in the United States, having graduated more than 100 physicians and attracted students from over 25 foreign countries.

Those interested in aerospace medicine share a common belief.

“I’m pretty much convinced that the future of mankind is to move beyond Earth,” said Farhad Sahiar, M.D., M.S., director of Wright State’s Aerospace Medicine Residency Program. “We may not do it in the next 10 years or the next 20 years, but eventually our destiny lies in our capability of colonizing other places in this universe. I think every resident that comes through this program has that same conviction. That’s what drives this specialty.”

Sahiar’s interest in space began in his native India. He was a flight surgeon in the Indian Air Force, rotating through helicopter, fighter jet, and medical evacuation units. In 1984, his father was the chief scientific coordinator for India’s one and only human space flight mission, in which an Indian cosmonaut, Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma, flew aboard the Salyut-7 space station, making him the 138th human to visit space.

“I saw him work on all of the human space flight protocols, the selection of the cosmonaut, the training, the in-flight experiments, and the medical evaluations,” Sahiar recalled. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

At the time, Wright State offered the only civilian residency training program in the world for aerospace medicine. Sahiar arrived in 1991.

Sahiar says every element of medical education is covered in the four years of medical school—except aerospace medicine. “In aerospace medicine, you’re basically training the residents from ground zero,” he said. “This is where you teach them the fundamentals first, and then the resident gets to apply this knowledge when completing their various rotations.”

Sahiar said the toughest part of his job is trying to find the most interested, motivated, qualified residency candidates at a time when many medical school graduates are looking for careers that will quickly enable them to pay off the debt they accumulated to finance their education.

The two-year training program, which consists of course work and research, leads to a Master of Science in Aerospace Medicine. Residents complete their rotations at various aviation and space facilities such as the NASA Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and even the coroner’s office in Dayton, Ohio.

At the Kennedy Space Center, residents learn about the aeromedical preparation and staging for space shuttle flights— including pre- and post-flight management of astronauts. “It’s a very complex operation that takes place there,” Sahiar said. “You’ve got to prepare for any type of contingency.” The residents learn from exercises covering multiple emergency scenarios—from an explosion aboard the space shuttle to an aborted mission that results in an ocean splashdown.

“They will see us go through all of our planning for a mission where we stage our resources, handling any issues that may arise. We have a triage team to support the launch and landing,” said Philip Scarpa, M.D., M.S., a NASA flight surgeon and clinical associate professor in the Boonshoft School of Medicine, who supervises Wright State’s rotation at Kennedy. “We also do pre-flight examinations and family visitations and quarantines and health stabilization.”

Sahiar said aerospace medicine is the only specialty that manages the normal human being in an abnormal environment. Residents in the program study the effects of micro gravity, acceleration forces, low oxygen content, extreme radiation, and even the psychological impact of isolation, loss of family contact, and living in confined spaces.

“Being in a tin can for a long time can take its toll,” said Scarpa. “NASA performs a lot of isolation experiments.”

Astronaut Michael Barratt, M.D., M.S., came out of Wright State’s aerospace medicine program and flew on the space shuttle, and the International Space Station. Boonshoft School of Medicinegraduated physicians hold important positions at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) including Drs. Scarpa, David Tipton, Daniel Woodard, John Darwood, and Luis Moreno. Several other Aerospace Residency grads work in important posts at Houston’s Johnson Space Center (JSC), home of Mission Control. These include Drs. Jeffrey Davis, James Logan, Smith Johnston, Rainer Effenhauser, Philip Stepaniak, Terrance Taddeo, Edward Powers, Richard Scheuring, and Robert Haddon. Some graduates are medical school clinical faculty members who supervise the residents’ rotation at JSC.

Residents in the aerospace medicine program also rotate through the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI), which gets more than 400,000 cases a year. They study passenger safety and survival as well as aircraft accident investigation. At the FAA, there are currently seven physicians from the Wright State program working in the Office of Aerospace Medicine. Their duties include everything from medically assessing the fitness of pilots and air traffic controllers for duty, studying psycho-physiological effects of workload and fatigue, and analyzing the medical factors in aircraft accidents.

“The WSU residency program has been very effective in preparing physicians to address the current and emerging challenges of a constantly evolving civil aviation and commercial space sector in the U.S.” said Melchor J. Antunano, M.D., M.S., director of CAMI and a Boonshoft School of Medicine residency graduate.

Residents may also complete a rotation at the National Transportation Safety Board. Sahiar said residents are required to have the skills to conduct an aircraft or spacecraft accident investigation and must pass a graduate course on it. “We’ve had our residents rotate through our downtown coroner’s office to study what trauma or accident cases look like,” he said.

Residents in the Wright State program also gain experience at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base through use of the hyperbaric chamber, one of the largest in the world. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is the medical use of oxygen at a higher level than that at atmospheric pressure. It is the only definitive treatment for decompression sickness, an illness in which gas bubbles form in tissues when an individual is suddenly exposed to low barometric pressures, or to the vacuum of space.

The largest aerospace medicine residency program is operated by the United States Air Force, which is in the process of moving it from Texas to Wright-Patterson. The move will enable closer collaboration between Wright State and the Air Force in sharing knowledge and expertise.

The training has evolved over the years. “What has changed is the more practical involvement—these experiences that a flight surgeon typically has during his or her career,” he said. “You cannot acquire all of these experiences in one sitting.”

As part of their education, residents are required to complete a research project. “We are literally looking at things that haven’t been discovered as yet,” Sahiar said. “We don’t have answers. There are more questions than answers.”

Scarpa has been involved in Wright State’s residency program at Kennedy since 1994. “We have worked conscientiously at making the Kennedy Space Center program an excellent training experience for space medicineminded people.” he said. “I’ve been told that it’s a must-have for anybody interested in aerospace medicine. There are very few programs like this in the world.”

—Jim Hannah

Credit: NASA photo ISS027-E-012224 April, 12 2011


Last edited on 04/19/2016.