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Space Doctor

Aerospace medicine pioneer Irene Duhart Long (WCAS73) leads NASA’s medical mission.


by Caitlin Henning (WCAS07)

As a child Irene Duhart Long (WCAS73) dreamed of setting up a clinic on the moon. That ambition was not out of this world for the farsighted aerospace physician.

Since 1982 Duhart Long has worked in aerospace medicine at the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., where she currently serves as chief medical officer. She is responsible for the occupational health of the center’s 15,000 employees.

From an early age Duhart Long set her sights on the stars. She grew up in Cleveland, the daughter of an adult education teacher and a steelworker with a passion for planes and space travel. Though the space race was well underway by the time Duhart Long finished her degree in biology and premedical studies at Northwestern, aerospace medicine was still in its pioneer days.

One morning during her residency she awoke to a radio show about an aerospace medicine program somewhere in Ohio. With no idea where the program was, she wrote letters of inquiry to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. “A few days later,” Duhart Long recalls, “a man named Stanley Moler called me and said, ‘Apparently you want to go into space medicine. Someone just dumped 50 letters on my desk, and they’re all from you.’”

In 1979 Duhart Long embarked on a second residency, becoming only the second civilian to enter the Wright State University School of Medicine’s aerospace medicine program. In 1982, with her residency at the Kennedy Space Center drawing to a close, she told her supervisor, “If I’m not hired, I’m moving in with you and your wife.”

Duhart Long received an offer the next day, and she’s been with NASA since.

In the past 25 years Duhart Long’s work included not only provision and planning for emergency services but also management of pre- and postflight physiological data collection from astronauts and direction of the space center’s project that explored soil-less self-sustaining food production in relation to the International Space Station.

She has also staffed the biomedical console in the Launch Control Center for Space Shuttle launches, coordinating emergency medical support for Shuttle launches and landings. Duhart Long was the medical officer on duty Jan. 28, 1986, the day of the Challenger disaster.

Duhart Long coordinates with the medical staff and engineers to make the launch process as safe as possible for everyone involved. 

“I’m Dr. McCoy to Captain Kirk,” says Duhart Long in a reference to Star Trek’s renowned medic. “I’m looking at the big picture of what’s going on in the health of the whole ship.”

It’s the crowning achievement in Duhart Long’s lifelong quest, not that the path has always been easy. She recalls facing obstacles as a woman in a field traditionally dominated by men. “Sometimes people would look at the messenger and forget the message,” she says.

In an effort to encourage more women and minority college students to explore careers in science, she helped start the Spaceflight and Life Sciences Training Program at the Kennedy Space Center. Selected students spend seven weeks at the Kennedy Space Center, working on space research alongside NASA scientists.

She sees her leadership in the program as part of her responsibilities as a role model. “There’s a saying that to know where you’re going, you must know where you’ve been,” Duhart Long says. “I think it’s just as important to say, to succeed and prosper in the present, you must know where you’re headed.”

Close Up - Irene Long