The only Kiwi to study aerospace medicine with NASA, Lisa Brown, says the small field has massive potential and New Zealand should get on board.
A general surgical trainee at North Shore Hospital and PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, Lisa Brown is the first New Zealander to have completed the University of Texas Aerospace Medicine short course in conjunction with NASA, which only offers one scholarship a year.
She is the current student/resident representative on the Space Medicine Association council run from the US.
She says the main effects of space on the human body come from the lack of gravity.
“On Earth, when we walk around we’ve got gravity pulling on fluid, mainly down to our legs,” says Brown.
“When you’re up in space you don’t have that pull, so the fluid tends to shift around and can be tracking up into your head, your neck and up into your chest.
“If you look at pictures of astronauts up in the space station they always look quite red in the face, and compared to on earth their faces look a lot fatter than normal and that’s all from those fluid shifts.
“They can have changes in their vision and it can lead to hypoxia with fluid leaching out into the lungs.”
She says the lack of gravity has other effects too.
“You lose a lot of the cues that we have on Earth in terms of direction … astronauts get taught on Earth how to deal with that … spinning around in chairs for a while so that they start to learn the cues of when they might think that their head’s pointing in one way but really it’s not.
“With bone mass you can lose 1 percent of your bone mass per month … compared to on earth which is about 1 percent per year."
The loss of bone mass has been almost reversed by the introduction of a special exercise machine, she says.
“It’s kind of like using weights at the gym to keep that muscle strength and bone loss from occurring.”
Brown says she got into the NASA course after becoming Research Fellow in Aerospace Medicine at the University of Oxford in 2015, having already completed an internship at German Aerospace at the European Astronaut Center.
The NASA course involved lectures from current and past astronauts as well as experiencing simulated hypoxia in altitude chambers, and exploring the mock International Space Station NASA has in a pool to prepare astronauts for space walks.
She says NASA requires applicants to have a background in one specialty, and formal training with them on top of that before they can become “flight surgeons”.
They then monitor astronauts’ health - mostly from ground control.
“The crew are all trained in basic medical treatments they all spend time in hospitals and learn how to do full CPR, how to intubate people and deal with basic wounds and things like that.
“Everything else they’re taught the scenarios to be able to do the remote videoconferencing.”
There’s also a monitoring programme for when astronauts get back.
“A full debriefing process including health checks immediately when they get back and they also have health checks through the doctors at NASA for the rest of their life as well, just to look for any long-term consequences of space flight that might not have been predicted.”
She says that with commercial space flights, the new US Space Force and missions to Mars looming, there’s going to be a growing need for experts in the effect of space on the human body.
“It’s definitely an emerging field and a very exciting field to be involved with.”
She is committed to promoting aerospace opportunities in New Zealand, and says more Kiwi kids should be encouraged to take that giant leap.
“I think a lot of New Zealanders are interested in space and that might be through engineering, science, physics, astronomy, and I think we can really start to promote this more in New Zealand, make more opportunities available.
“There’s always ways and that’s the main thing is never let anything stop you. Keep pushing forward, keep being excited about it and opportunities will come ahead.”