Robert Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., Talks About His NASA Mission

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By: Will Fitzgerald, Staff Writer

satcher_lecture.jpgImagine blasting off the face of Earth in a NASA shuttle and arriving in outer space 8½ minutes later. It's a breathtaking journey by anyone's account and so rare, in fact, that only one in every 650 million people will experience it.

Luckily, those odds didn't work against Robert Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in MD Anderson's Department of Orthopedic Oncology, as he was chosen to spend 11 days in space aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

His journey was the subject of a recent presentation at MD Anderson. I was fortunate enough to attend and learn about his wild ride.

"During our mission we completed 171 orbits around Earth, or 4.5 million miles," he said. "It gives you an appreciation for our home planet."

Staying in shape
Satcher's mission took him to the International Space Station to resupply, perform maintenance and conduct tests on how the human body reacts in space. He was particularly interested in studying skeletal muscles and bone density, due to the affect of zero gravity, which increases atrophy. For this reason, while in space, astronauts must exercise their muscles at least once a day to maintain their strength. Interestingly, he joked, some astronauts come back stronger because they have been working out so frequently.

"We have learned a lot about what it takes to survive in space," Satcher said. "We learned how to start IVs and to make sure that when you push the needle in, you're not also pushing yourself away."

Even everyday tasks such as personal hygiene were complicated, especially when you had a room full of guys, he said. This included using waterless shampoo and strapping oneself to the toilet, not easy or comfortable adjustments.

The real challenge, and one of additional research, was on circadian rhythms -- the biological clock that influences sleep patterns. "It took me three days just to get used to sleeping because you're just floating around, even if you're still in the bag," he said.

Walking in space
During the mission, Satcher conducted three space walks to check the station's outside equipment, while employing his finely tuned surgical skills to navigate a robotic arm scanning for shuttle damage. He likened the tedious nature of this task to his experience in the operating room.

Still, the fine art of actually getting out of the space suit was an incredibly tricky undertaking. On a video presentation, footage revealed one of Satcher's crew mates standing on the suit to prevent it from slipping, while Satcher wiggled his way out. He called it more difficult than birthing a baby calf.

I, like many others in attendance, was amazed at Satcher's accomplishments. He earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from MIT and his M.D. from Harvard Medical School. Now, as one of NASA's finest, he is quite literally "out of this world." Or as MD Anderson President John Mendelsohn, M.D., said, "There are no underachievers here."

M.D. Anderson doc tweeting from space (Houston Chronicle Med Blog)

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