During a typical day in practice, Ronald Moomaw, DO, might encounter a patient suffering back discomfort due to recompression of the spine after transitioning from weightlessness. Or he might join a videoconference with a patient orbiting roughly 220 miles over the Earth.
As a NASA flight surgeon and one of two psychiatrists providing direct patient care for astronauts and ground crew at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Dr. Moomaw is trained to recognize and treat signs of emotional fatigue and stress among his unique patient population.
In this edited interview, he discusses his career with the NASA medical team and describes the role he plays in supporting astronauts before, during and after their missions.
How did you end up working for NASA?
They sought me out because of my training with the military, which the flight surgeon position required. I completed residency training in psychiatry at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, and taught psychiatry for the residency training program at the former Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base. I also was trained and certified as a flight surgeon at the former Brooks Air Force Base before leaving the service in 1986 as a major.
What does your job entail?
My primary responsibility is to provide mission support by working directly with astronauts before, during and after a flight. My specialty is identifying astronaut fatigue and studying circadian rhythm. I aim to address any concerns that could influence the health and wellbeing of an astronaut in flight or travel.
During a mission, I’m in contact with the astronauts no less than every two weeks. I’m there to serve as a sounding board and help them address any issues with their health.
I also support the research team from an operational standpoint. Researchers often get buried in the data and need someone in the field to contribute ideas they might not consider, such as the effect that sleep and fatigue may have on test results.
How do you help astronauts prepare for a mission?
Preflight, I help them plan how they will stay in communication with their family using tools such as video conferencing and Internet Protocol phones. It’s important for astronauts to stay engaged with their families during a mission. In space, they must deal with severe isolation. There is no day off, and they live and work in the same environment.
What are some medical issues astronauts might face in space?
Astronauts often experience memory issues because so much of our memory relies on gravity-based reinforcers. For example, when you park your car, you remember you parked near a tree and, thanks to gravity, your car will not float away. In space, however, you need to think of other identifiers to help you remember where you place items. Instead of a tree, you’ll need more visual clues to remember you secured a tool with Velcro under a vent by your laptop. Typically, it takes about six weeks for memory to adapt in space. When astronauts fly again, it takes less time to adapt.
Do astronauts endure any negative health effects when they return to Earth?
Your body can grow several inches in space because there isn’t a gravitational force compressing your spine. An astronaut can experience back pain as the spine shrinks back to normal height.