October 15, 2016


 Applying veterinary training in space travel

Dr. Richard M. Linnehan sees opportunities for veterinarians in space exploration and colonization.

Dr. Linnehan, who spent 58 days in space and 42 hours on spacewalks, is involved in research into measures to protect astronauts and counteract the ill effects of long durations in space, especially the effects of cosmic rays and high-energy particles that can bombard a flight crew beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetosphere. In a presentation at AVMA Convention 2016, he described a need to mitigate adverse health effects of space travel, including bone density loss, vision changes, muscle loss, neurocognitive deficits, and increased risk of diseases such as blood cancers as well as the need for biologists and medical professionals for this work.

Otherwise, an astronaut who loses bone mass over the trip to Mars, for example, could fall on the ramp while exiting the craft and break a leg. 

Dr. Linnehan expressed confidence that the Orion spacecraft and its heavy boosters will propel humans back to the moon, as well as to Mars and minable asteroids. A variety of animals, including primates and rodents, will be used in research on life in space, he said.  

Dr. Richard Linnehan speaks during a crew return ceremony in 2008 near NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (Courtesy of NASA)

Dr. Linnehan noted that veterinarians were among the first biomedical professionals involved in the space program. He described the progression of animals launched into space, including the dog Laika aboard a Soviet craft, the chimpanzee Ham aboard a U.S. one, and the small animals used in experiments during Dr. Linnehan’s first mission aboard the International Space Station. 

Veterinarians also would be great exobiologists, he said, predicting they could take on more roles than are currently known. 

In an interview before the convention, Dr. Linnehan said he knows veterinarians are among the applicants for NASA’s next astronaut pool, and he thinks veterinarians’ training in the physiology of a variety of species, microbiology, and zoonotic diseases make them even better prepared than physicians for space missions. 

“The broad educational aspects of a veterinary degree, in terms of medicine, and public health, and zoonosis, and just understanding physiologies of different species, inherently make veterinarians obvious choices,” he said.

Dr. Linnehan graduated from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1985, a year NASA flew nine shuttle missions. He decided then he would be among crew members traveling on NASA shuttles.

“I figured, if they could fly physicians, then they could fly veterinarians,” he said in the interview.

His internship in zoo animal medicine, interest in diving physiology, captain’s rank in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, and work as chief veterinarian for the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program likely aided Dr. Linnehan’s application to NASA, he said. He was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1992. Four years later, he flew into orbit as a mission specialist aboard Space Shuttle Columbia for mission STS-78, the Life Sciences and Microgravity Spacelab mission. 

Dr. Linnehan conducted experiments on the effects of microgravity on nervous systems as a payload commander in the 1998 Neurolab mission, which he said provided cutting-edge research on rodents, fish, and insects. He also spent 21 hours on spacewalks as an extravehicular-activity crew member during a 2002 mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope and spent 22 hours outside the shuttle as the lead space walker in a 2008 mission to deliver components and exchange crew members at the International Space Station. 

Dr. Linnehan now splits his time among projects intended to equip and protect crews aboard the Orion spacecraft, which is designed for deep space exploration and travel to Mars. He works on initiatives in space suit design, physiologic modeling and research, space flight exercise equipment and methods, and radiation and nutrition protocols. 

“We have to figure out ways to keep people healthier for longer times in space,” he said.