What happens when astronauts get sick in space? While there hasn’t been a severe medical emergency on the International Space Station yet, the normal procedure would simply involve bringing the sick or injured astronaut home if possible. In deep space, however, it would be nearly impossible to bring them back to Earth in a timely fashion.
On Earth, it’s easy to airlift someone from a remote location to a hospital. They did that for astronaut Buzz Aldrin when he spent time at an Antarctic research station and had a medical emergency. On the Moon or Mars, that would be far more difficult, if not impossible.
SpaceX is partnering with the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix to offer a one-year fellowship to study space surgery. The fellowship offers training on austere surgical care, which involves surgery in extreme and resource-restrained environments like space.
It will also include six months of spaceflight-related research and activities with SpaceX. The person who receives the fellowship will work with flight surgeons to learn about participating in commercial spaceflight activities.
Has Anyone Ever Had a Medical Emergency in Space?
One documented medical incident involves the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. Lunar module pilot James Irwin suffered a cardiac incident while conducting an EVA on the lunar surface. Because it would have taken three days to return Irwin to Earth for treatment, physicians on the mission control team agreed that the low gravity environment and 100% oxygen atmosphere was the best possible environment for Irwin.
Weak points in this plan included Irwin having to deal with a bulky spacesuit. Physicians also opted not to inform the Apollo 15 crew, which led to the crew vetoing the idea of taking a vitamin supplement that would have helped ease Irwin’s cardiac issue.
Irwin survived the trip back to Earth and lived another 20 years, though he had cardiac issues for the rest of his life.
There wasn’t a lot that NASA could do at the time because there weren’t exactly any medical facilities on the Moon. Even now, medical facilities in space are tightly limited.
SpaceX Interested in Solving Medical Issues “On-Site” if Possible
SpaceX aims to address at least some of the issues by training surgeons to conduct surgery in a limited environment. Future space surgeons may also train to participate in commercial spaceflights. It’s likely that “space surgeons” will be included in SpaceX’s efforts to fill Elon Musk’s plans for Mars.
These plans include launching as many as thirty Starship spacecraft to Mars a day to transport cargo and people for a permanent Martian base. An ideal launch window for sending payloads to Mars opens up once about every 26 months.
The pioneers going to Mars will likely include professionals like surgeons who have been trained to help resolve medical issues “on-site” in an environment in which a fully equipped hospital isn’t available.
Medical doctors who have flown in space include astronaut Scott Parazynski, who flew on five space shuttle missions. Notable missions included STS-95, during which he oversaw several life science experiments that included legendary astronaut John Glenn, and STS-120, during which he participated in an emergency EVA to fix some of the International Space Station’s solar panels.