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Northwestern Doctor Will Be First Orthopedic Surgeon in Space

November 11, 2009 | by Marla Paul
Dr. Robert Satcher trains in a weightless environment before his Nov. 16 space journey.

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CHICAGO --- Dr. Robert "Bobby" Satcher will be the first orthopedic surgeon to orbit the earth, when he blasts off on the Space Shuttle Atlantis for his journey to the International Space Station Nov. 16. Scheduled to embark on three space walks with the STS-129 crew, Satcher will rely on his surgical training in intricate joint replacements to help repair two robotic arms on the exterior of the space station.

Satcher, 44, is an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, a surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.

In addition to space walks, Satcher, as a proxy scientist, will conduct experiments from the shuttle, investigating the effects of outer space on the immune system, changes in sitting height and bone formation in mice. He will tweet his experiences at @astro_bones, a handle the public voted for him. He'll also tweet about medical issues for space exploration at @ZeroG_MD.

Satcher, a specialist in child and adult bone cancer who also is a surgeon at Children's Memorial Hospital, will leave the earth's atmosphere just after another astronaut with Northwestern ties returned from space. Michael Barratt, who earned his Doctor of Medicine degree from Feinberg and who has taught about physiological changes that occur in space, recently returned to Houston from his mission on the space station.

Satcher is the third Northwestern-connected astronaut. Joseph Kerwin, who got his Doctor of Medicine degree from Northwestern, became the first American physician to make a spaceflight in Skylab 2, where he studied the health of his crewmates in 1973.

"I'm proud to continue the tradition," Satcher said. He has been on leave from Northwestern since he was accepted into the NASA program in 2004.

Cheering on the ground at liftoff will be Satcher's wife, D'Juanna, a pediatrician, their two children and a contingent of Northwestern colleagues. Satcher will carry to the space station two Northwestern flags, one from the University and one from the Feinberg School's 150th anniversary.

To learn more about the Feinberg School of Medicine, visit www.feinberg.northwestern.edu.


Dr. Satcher took a break from final mission preparations to talk about his NASA experience.       

MP: When did you first want to be an astronaut?

RS: "It was something in the back of my mind when I was a kid. But when you looked at a picture of who was in the astronaut corps, you didn't see anyone who looked like you. In the 80s, they began to allow African Americans and women to become astronauts. That had a profound effect on me, especially after I had the good fortune to meet astronauts who were medical doctors. That helped me decide to apply for the astronaut program, and I was lucky enough to get selected."

MP: What are you most excited about on the mission?

RS: "I'm going to be doing an EVA (extravehicular activity) in which we'll be performing maneuvers outside the spacecraft. That will be the most fun. You get to go outside the spacecraft in a space suit, and the views are spectacular. It gives you the most vivid experience of being in outer space. You are literally out there."

MP: When you're not admiring the view, what kind of work will you be doing?

RS: "We are bringing up a lot of replacement parts for the International Space Station. On my first space walk, I'll be installing an antenna and doing maintenance work on two of the robotic arms. On the second, I'll be installing a gas tank."

MP: Has your training as an orthopedic surgeon helped you as an astronaut?

RS: "The space walks are six to seven hours each, and you are in this space suit, which reminds me of some of the surgeries I used to do. In the operating room, we had things we called space suits that we wore when we did joint replacements.  Obviously, the work we are doing on the spacecraft is not as fine as in surgery, but a lot of it is intricate stuff. And it's important to pace yourself and keep your focus the same way you do in an operating room. The surgical training carries over to some extent."

MP: Will you do research in space?

RS: "I'll be a proxy scientist for three experiments. One will look at how being in outer space affects the immune system, another will look at changes in sitting height, and another will look at how bones form in mice when they go into space."

MP: What was the hardest part of your astronaut training?

RS: "The EVA training is the most rigorous; we do it in a neutral buoyancy lab. It's a large tank or pool that is mocked up to be like the space shuttle and the NASA space station. We go into specially modified space suits that have been altered so they can go under water. They are weighted in such a way that you float under water. The environment is similar to what you'll experience in orbit because you are floating. You have to move the way you do in the space station or space shuttle.

"Each of the runs is six or seven hours. The suit is pressurized, so you're working against its resistance. Most of the work you are doing is very involved and detailed. You have to move inside the suit, and you use muscles you usually don't use to get around. You're walking hand over hand everywhere. The first few times you do it, it really exhausts you, but in time you adapt. Now I know how to pace myself."

MP: What's it like in a weightless environment?

RS: "A lot of adaptation has to occur. When you first get up there, you don't have the cues you take for granted on earth, such as which way is up and which way is down. What you see with your eyes is uncoupled with what you sense, and that can make you a little nauseous. But even though you may not feel like your normal self, you have a busy schedule and still have to do all the work you are assigned."

MP: What will your medical tweets be about?

RS: "I'll be soliciting questions and comments from people about how we implement medical care in orbit and about human experimentation."

MP: What do you do when you're not wearing a spacesuit?

RS: "My biggest hobby is scuba diving. Something I used to do, but haven't had time for recently, is outreach medical missions. I did a lot of traveling to different countries before I joined NASA. I went to West Africa and to Central and South America, delivering orthopedic surgical care to people who didn't have access to medical care. Sometimes we were the first physicians to see people with bone infections that had gone untreated or broken bones that healed in a an awkward position that needed to be corrected."

MP: Are you nervous about your mission?

RS: "This is admittedly something I've never done before. When I talk to the other astronauts about what they felt on their first launch, they say when you get into the last 15 seconds or so of the countdown, you realize this is for real. We're really going up. Up until then, the launch can be aborted. Once I get within that time frame, I'll know how I really feel. We've had all these dress rehearsals in which we've put on our launch suits, strapped in and gone through the count down. What's missing is that we're not sitting on a real rocket. When we get within those last few seconds, I'm sure the butterflies will follow. I know for sure that it's going to be a thrilling ride."

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