Feature

Astronaut Health Top Priority
08.14.09
 
As each space shuttle glides down the runway to a stop, a large caravan of vehicles heads to Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility. In that caravan is a Johnson Space Center flight crew surgeon and other medical personnel.

Each mission's crew is assigned a flight crew surgeon who follows them from the time they are assigned to a mission through landing. For the STS-127 crew, that surgeon was Dr. Cedrick Senter. Endeavour crew exits the CTV

Image above: STS-127 Commander Mark Polansky exits the Crew Transport Vehicle after his post-landing medical exam and is greeted by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Behind Polansky is Pilot Doug Hurley. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
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STS-126 Commander Chris Ferguson (left) and Pilot Eric Boe examine the tiles on space shuttle Endeavour

Image above: After space shuttle Endeavour's landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, STS-126 Commander Chris Ferguson (left) and Pilot Eric Boe examine the tiles. Photo credit: NASA/Tom Tschida, VAFB
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STS-112 crew members head for the Astrovan after exiting the crew transport vehicle

Image above: Accompanied by astronaut Kent Rominger (far left), STS-112 crew members head for NASA's Astrovan after exiting the Crew Transport Vehicle. Photo credit: NASA/KSC
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After space shuttle Endeavour was cleared of toxic fumes and chemicals, the Crew Transport Vehicle, or CTV, raised up to the level of the shuttle hatch. It then was attached to the shuttle’s side for workers to open the hatch.

Senter entered Endeavour through the CTV and performed an assessment of the crew members to make sure they were well.

Then, he and others helped them out of their seats and down the ladder if they were up on the flight deck, or to crawl out of the middeck hatch.

"It's usually quite warm in the shuttle after landing," Senter said. "The crew members have been wearing bulky spacesuits for several hours, so they are often overheated."

The flight surgeon's primary responsibility is to assess and manage heat stress, dehydration and motion sickness. They help the crew change into more comfortable flight suits, give them something cool to drink and let them rest briefly in the air-conditioned CTV.

When the crew members feel well enough, they do a post-landing walk around to inspect the shuttle and often make a statement to the media.

Next, the crew members board the Astrovan and are transported to the Baseline Data Collection Facility in the Operations and Checkout Building. There, they receive their post-flight physical examinations, and participate in medical and physiology experiments that they volunteered for as part of the mission.

According to Senter, crew members typically spend two to four hours undergoing post-flight evaluation and testing.

"We are there to examine the crew and manage any potential medical issues, and to interface with the scientists collecting data to make sure that the process goes smoothly," Senter said. "It’s a busy time as everyone rushes to get everything completed so the crew members can be released to their families."

Flight Crew Surgeon Dr. James Locke was the lead crew surgeon for several missions, including STS-123 and STS-124.

Locke said it takes astronauts some time to readjust to gravity, especially after a long-duration mission.

"We crew surgeons keep a close watch on crew members during the first several days after returning from space," Locke said. "They sometimes experience motion sickness."

Koichi Wakata, who lived aboard the International Space Station for 138 days and returned to Earth with STS-127, adjusted quite fast to Earth’s gravity, and even made it to the post-landing crew news conference about four hours after landing.

"When the hatch opened, I smelled the grass from the ground and was glad to be back home," Wakata said. "Still feeling a little shaky when I walk, but I’m feeling very good."

 
 
Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center