Operating in orbit: Astronaut Bobby Satcher recounts his experience in space

June 3, 2010 by Morgan Bettex
Astronaut and MIT alumnus Robert L. Satcher Jr. '86, PhD '93, STS-129 mission specialist, participates in a spacewalk. Photo: NASA

As an orthopedic oncologist who studies bone that has been damaged by cancer, Robert ?Bobby? Satcher ?86, PhD ?93, HST MD ?94 is also interested in the effects of microgravity on the human body. He got the chance to experience those effects firsthand when he became the first orthopedic surgeon to venture into space in November 2009.

Satcher was one of six astronauts who spent 11 days aboard the recently retired shuttle Atlantis as part of NASA’s STS-129 Shuttle mission to deliver 14 tons of spare parts to the (ISS). During the mission, he completed two spacewalks to attach hardware to the exterior of the ISS that will help keep the research facility running until 2015.

“It’s definitely the most physically demanding thing we do as astronauts,” Satcher, speaking at a talk at MIT on Tuesday hosted by the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), said about his experience. “It’s really kind of a sensory overload.”

If anyone could handle the physical and mental stress of that task, it would be Satcher, according to Joseph R. Madsen, an associate professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School and president of the HST Alumni Association. “Dr. Satcher demonstrates the core idea of the HST program — combining a deep understanding of human biology with a deep understanding of engineering and science to accomplish things that can hardly be imagined,” he said.

Space surgery

Satcher has been on leave as an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine since 2004, when he was selected to be an astronaut. Prior to the launch of STS-129, Satcher underwent 18 months of rigorous mission training that included land- and water-survival classes and learning about the technical aspects of the space shuttle and orbital mechanics.

Despite that intensive astronaut training, it was actually Satcher’s medical background that proved to be the most valuable during the mission. Satcher said that his surgical experience helped prepare him for using highly sophisticated instruments during the two spacewalks he completed that totaled more than 12 hours. During the first spacewalk, he helped attach a spare antenna to the ISS and perform maintenance work on a robotic arm, and during his second spacewalk, he helped install a new high-pressure oxygen tank.

Satcher, who holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT, said he was most intrigued with the scientific aspects of the mission, including conducting short-term experiments and delivering equipment for ongoing experiments on the ISS.

He was particularly interested in the orthopedic experiments, such as measuring how the astronauts’ heights increased in space as a result of the absence of gravity, or microgravity, and delivering mice that over-express a gene related to osteogenesis, or the process of bone formation, to the ISS. The mice will be brought back during a later mission to see how their skeletons develop in space and whether they experience bone loss.

As an , Satcher is also interested in the negative side effects of microgravity. Although scientists have known for decades that microgravity causes bone to lose essential minerals, muscles to atrophy and the cardiovascular system to weaken, they are still experimenting with different countermeasures to pinpoint the best way to keep astronauts healthy.

Satcher was eager to test various resistive exercises, including doing squats or running attached to a treadmill, that he believes are “very effective” countermeasures to offset the effects of . “We know exercise works,” he said, adding that it still took several days for his muscles and sense of balance to readjust when he returned to Earth.

Because the program is scheduled to end later this year, Satcher said that he would have to fly aboard a Russian spacecraft if he wanted to return to space before 2020. Even so, he remained positive about NASA’s future under President Obama’s new space policy, which would boost NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next five years. “NASA has done a tremendous amount with very little,” he said, adding that American taxpayers pay more each year for Halloween activities ($25) than they do to send people into space ($20).

Explore further: Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on supply mission

Related Stories

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on supply mission

November 16, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Space shuttle Atlantis and its six-member crew began an 11-day delivery flight to the International Space Station on Monday with a 2:28 p.m. EST launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The shuttle ...

Astronauts take spacewalk No. 3 after suit snag

November 23, 2009

(AP) -- A pair of astronauts stepped out on the third and final spacewalk of their shuttle mission Monday, helping to install an enormous oxygen tank at the International Space Station.

Space shuttle Atlantis, 7 astronauts back on Earth

November 27, 2009

Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew of seven astronauts ended an 11-day journey of nearly 4.5 million miles with a 9:44 a.m. EST landing Friday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Atlantis 'Go' For Launch to Station on Nov. 16

October 29, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's space shuttle Atlantis is targeted to begin an 11-day flight to the International Space Station with a Nov. 16 launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Liftoff is scheduled for 2:28 p.m. EST. ...

Space shuttle Endeavour readies return to Earth

July 28, 2009

The space shuttle Endeavour undocked from the International Space Station on Tuesday to take photographs of the orbiting research facility before final maneuvers to prepare its return home.

Recommended for you

Video: A colorful 'landing' on Pluto

January 20, 2017

What would it be like to actually land on Pluto? This movie was made from more than 100 images taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft over six weeks of approach and close flyby in the summer of 2015. The video offers a trip ...

Freeze-dried food and 1 bathroom: 6 simulate Mars in dome

January 20, 2017

Crammed into a dome with one bathroom, six scientists will spend eight months munching on mostly freeze-dried foods—with a rare treat of Spam—and have only their small sleeping quarters to retreat to for solace.

Image: Wavemaker moon Daphnis

January 20, 2017

The wavemaker moon, Daphnis, is featured in this view, taken as NASA's Cassini spacecraft made one of its ring-grazing passes over the outer edges of Saturn's rings on Jan. 16, 2017. This is the closest view of the small ...

The evolution of massive galaxy clusters

January 20, 2017

Galaxy clusters have long been recognized as important laboratories for the study of galaxy formation and evolution. The advent of the new generation of millimeter and submillimeter wave survey telescopes, like the South ...

Astronomers search for signs of life on Wolf 1061 exoplanet

January 19, 2017

Is there anybody out there? The question of whether Earthlings are alone in the universe has puzzled everyone from biologists and physicists to philosophers and filmmakers. It's also the driving force behind San Francisco ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jun 03, 2010
Satcher was one of six astronauts who spent 11 days aboard the recently retired shuttle Atlantis

Not quite accurate. While she has flown her last scheduled flight, Atlantis has not yet been retired. Atlantis is scheduled to serve as backup rescue shuttle for Endeavour's STS-134, the last scheduled shuttle flight.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.