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Astronaut-surgeon shares spaceflight experiences

by Cindy Abole
Public Relations

A former NASA astronaut who graduated from a South Carolina high school visited MUSC to tell of his travels 240 miles above the earth and what it's like to walk in space.

Retired astronaut Robert L. Satcher Jr., M.D., Ph.D., the first orthopaedic surgeon in space, was a guest presenter at the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery's Grand Rounds.

Dr. Robert
                                          SatcherDr. Robert Satcher visited MUSC April 3 as part of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery's Grand Rounds.

Satcher, who also is a musculoskeletal oncologist, explored the effects of microgravity on bone mass and muscle strength. His visit coincided with a scheduled talk as the guest speaker of the Charleston Orthopaedic Society where he spoke about NASA's work and progress in the area of information technology in medicine and its telemedicine program.

Satcher was invited by Department of Orthopaedic Surgery Chairman Langdon A. Hartsock, M.D., who met Satcher previously at a national meeting. Satcher is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Oncology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Satcher addressed a small crowd about his training and experiences as a mission specialist and medical officer aboard STS-129 (Atlantis) which flew in November 2009 as part of an 11-day re-supply and maintenance mission to the International Space Station. Additionally, Satcher logged more than 260 hours in space which included more than 12 hours in two space walks using the shuttle's robotic arm.

"I've always had a desire to discover new things. As a child, I loved reading the history of Europeans traveling the oceans and making new discoveries. I was fascinated by their courage and sense of adventure. I knew that combining my interests in science, engineering and medicine was a great fit for space exploration and new discoveries."

As STS-129's proxy scientist, Satcher was able to conduct several experiments during the multiple days in space, evaluating sleep and circadian rhythms (the biological clock that influences sleep), immune system response and changes to the body's spine (upright and seated) in microgravity.

Data from these studies and experiments will help scientists and researchers understand changes to the human body in preparation for longer duration flights and future missions possibly to the moon, Mars or beyond, according to Satcher. Research in manned spaceflight shows the effects of zero gravity to be very harsh on the body, resulting in increased bone loss and muscle atrophy. For this reason, astronauts must exercise their muscles daily to maintain their strength.

Working with the shuttle crew, Satcher studied differences with endurance and muscle strength during exercise. There is promising research tying studies in space to preserve bone health during long-term space flight and cancer research, specifically with pharmacological studies using bisphosphonates and similar drugs used to treat osteoporosis and improve bone loss in cancer patients.

Orthopaedic Surgery's Lee Leddy, M.D., said he was impressed with the former astronaut's career accomplishments.

"I found it amazing that Dr. Satcher was able to do so much balancing his clinical and research work while pursuing his dream to fly in space. His success is an inspiration that one can aspire to anything without limitations."




Friday, May 4, 2012

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