Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Day at NASA

I had the pleasure of spending a day at NASA this week.   I met Dr. Joseph P. Kerwin, M.D. (Captain, MC, USN, Ret.), the first physician astronaut to serve with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Dr. Kerwin has had a long and varied career.  He logged 4500 hours flight time as flight surgeon before being selected by NASA in 1965.  He served as science-pilot for the Skylab 2 (SL-2) mission, and subsequently managed the on-orbit branch of the Astronaut Office, where he coordinated astronaut activity involving rendezvous, satellite deployment and retrieval, and other Shuttle payload operations.  He later served as Director of Space and Life Sciences at the Johnson Space Center, Houston.  In that capacity he was responsible for direction and coordination of medical support to operational manned spacecraft programs, including health care and maintenance of the astronauts and their families; for direction of life services, and for managing Johnson Space Center earth sciences research, light experimentation projects, and scientific efforts in lunar and planetary research. 


We compared notes on our respective fields, and on the progress that has been made in medicine in the past 50 years.  Dr. Kerwin told me, “The only difference between your specialty and mine is that I made house calls.”  I guess that’s true, but I think most people would consider a house call thousands of miles away in space an adventure.  Dr. Kerwin is the co-author of “Homesteading Space:  The Skylab Story,” a compelling tale of the Skylab from the near-disastrous launch to the descent into the Indian Ocean. 


I had the opportunity to tour the historic Mission Control, and I admit to developing a lump in my throat at the thought of the teams who labored tirelessly and risked their personal safety to send human beings into space.  Every mission was an exercise in learning......learning the tasks necessary to live in a weightless environment, learning the mechanical skills to manage spacecraft, learning the nuances of flight.    In the early days of the space program every person had a singular focus – get a man on the moon.  Today NASA has a new program known as Constellation.  The Constellation Program is focused on carrying a new generation of explorers to the moon, and then to Mars. 


In these troubled days of challenges in healthcare, economic depression and worldwide warfare, there is a bright spot in the form of Orion, NASA’s first Constellation Program vehicle.  Orion is a reminder that whatever the challenges, the human spirit will continue to seek knowledge and understanding beyond what is currently known.   


Thank you, Joe. 

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