Space is rapidly becoming more democratic, and the University of Arizona, in partnership with SpaceX and the Banner Health Foundation, will begin to lay the foundations of space medicine and surgery.
Space is an unforgiving environment where the smallest basic task is subject to significant constraints. It is already necessary to put in place a substantial infrastructure to carry out routine actions such as breathing, defecating or sustenance. But in the current context where this industry is progressing more and more rapidly, more ambitious projects are beginning to take shape; on the side of the United States, we are even starting to talk very seriously about large-scale space surgery.
Indeed, this theme will soon be the subject of a partnership between the University of Arizona, SpaceX and the non-profit organization Banner Health. The objective: to set up a new kind of university course, centered on medicine and especially aerospace surgery.
A task force of academic stars with reinforced concrete CVs
This training, called APEX Aerospace Surgery Fellowship, is in fact a specialization course aimed primarily at surgeons and other practitioners who are experts and recognized in their field. The lucky ones will of course be handpicked through a draconian pre-selection.
And for good reason: in essence, the objective is to make them doctors and surgeons astronauts, just that! A position that could well be one of the most demanding in the world; after all, it is located right at the intersection of two infinitely dense disciplines whose practice requires long years of physical and intellectual effort just to reach the level of knowledge and technical mastery required.
It is therefore a particularly rare double hat that requires having a CV as thick as a telephone directory; currently, only a handful of humans, like astronaut and medical doctor Jonny Kim, can boast such an academic pedigree. But APEX hopes to remedy this situation.
Key players in tomorrow’s aerospace
This course “will prepare practitioners to work in the medical branch of commercial aerospace. They will work specifically on ultra-specialized themes; such as hyperbaric medicine, physiology in microgravity conditions, or even the production and administration of treatments in this extremely restrictive context in logistical terms.
They will also have to learn about the particularities of this environment, and in particular the fact that internal fluids and organs float freely in the absence of microgravity. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are still lots of prohibitive logistical problems that this shock team will try to solve.
Ultimately, the objective is to create a shock team of on-board doctors. They will be dispatched to the various missions, as is already the case in the navy. There is also a fairly obvious parallel between the two; these are by definition hostile environments, where resources are very limited and the crew is left to their own devices. In this context of relative isolation, medical personnel therefore play an even more essential role than usual. They will provide critical medical and surgical support in these extreme environments,” the institution’s statement explains.
The APEX course and will consist of a year of intensive training on the campus of the University of Arizona. They will also be able to spend six months working on this theme directly with SpaceX. The objective: to make the link between these theoretical bases and the reality on the ground.
Top start in 2023
Training will begin in July 2023. Eventually, all graduates will be able to support an entire crew on an extended space mission. In particular, they will carry out flight fitness certificates for the crew and routine tests. They must also be able to react in a vital emergency situation. On the other hand, the majority of them will not necessarily take part in a mission immediately.
The reason is simple: they will already have a lot to do on Earth. Graduates will play a pivotal role in the development of technologies essential to the practice of extraterrestrial medicine. “APEX represents our collective construction of humanity’s medical future in space.”, explains Dr. Eric Petersen, initiator of the project and an illustrious figure in medicine applied to space.
“Ten years from now, I expect one of these graduates to perform the first-ever surgery in space.”, adds his colleague Anil Menon before adding, dreamily: “and with a little luck, it will be on Mars!” The future will tell us if the latter will one day have the opportunity to set foot on the red planet.
But whatever the case, he will already have the immense privilege of playing the pioneers in a few years. Indeed, this ex-director of medical research at SpaceX has already been poached by NASA; it is now preparing for the Artemis mission, which should bring humans back to the moon by 2026. There is no doubt that the crew of this historic mission will be delighted to have a specialist at their side, but the stakes are even higher: in addition to all its other promises, this mission could well mark the beginning of a space medicine in good and due form.