As NASA’s chief medical officer, J.D. Polk, DO, is in charge of the health and safety of all NASA employees, including astronauts.
This overarching responsibility has taken his role in surprising directions at the agency, where he has been since 2016. For instance, he oversees a team that serves as experts on the health specifications for new vehicle development at NASA, including vehicles intended for use during upcoming missions to the Moon and Mars.
During LEAD 2020, the AOA’s annual leadership and advocacy conference, taking place Feb. 27-28 in Manalapan, Florida, Dr. Polk will provide attendees with an overview of his work with NASA as well as his previous role in the Department of Homeland Security.
At LEAD, Dr. Polk will be highlighting the training and professional development that prepared him for these roles and sharing how his osteopathic education informs his work. Dr. Polk will also discuss how his osteopathic training has provided him with a unique perspective that has served him well in these high-profile positions.
The DO caught up with Dr. Polk in May, when he shared details about the projects he was working on at NASA. Below is a condensed version of that interview. Read the full Q&A here. Register for LEAD 2020 here.
What is in the works at NASA these days?
NASA’s involved in work on eight different vehicles right now. It’s the busiest time we’ve ever had. In the next 2-2 ½ years, we will have five companies launching humans into space. Virgin Galactic has already launched a suborbital flight; they reached the terminator of space in December and came down.
They also just took a passenger to that same line that separates our atmosphere and the space horizon. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ company, is getting ready for its first suborbital flight. NASA also contracted Space X and Boeing to build capsules to go to our space station, so those two companies are launching for us. Then there’s NASA’s own Orion capsule and vehicle, which are being built for the moon and Mars mission.
This doesn’t count X-planes, which can include experimental, high-velocity aircraft, very high altitude (of 50,000 feet) aircraft, and low-boom aircraft. There are a whole bunch of programs to get us aloft again in air and space.
How much of this work ties into the Mars mission?
A lot of this work is building to go to the moon and Mars. Orion is built to withstand radiation under standards that allow for much longer duration and farther exploration. There will be two separate missions: First, to the moon with a goal of boots to the moon by 2024, and then to Mars in the 2030s.
We will send a lander from the Gateway spacecraft down to the moon to explore different areas of it. The Gateway allows us to base above the lunar surface and to go back and forth and explore multiple areas of the moon, including the poles. There are lessons to learn before we head off to Mars.
What are some of the concerns of the Mars mission?
Mars will be a 2 ½-year mission. It takes six months to get there. Then, Mars and Earth don’t line up again for 18 months, so astronauts will be on Mars that long, then take a six-month journey back home.
So if we take a doctor to Mars, that person will need training in a whole host of things because they’re it. They’re the only medical care on that planet. Real-time telemedicine options will be limited because there’s a 20-minute delay between communications from Mars to Earth.
There is much to work out. For example, do you have a backup doctor? How much training would we give other crew members in case something happened to the physician? What’s the technology that we will need to survive on Mars? What are the countermeasures needed to keep the astronauts healthy?
What are three pieces of advice for medical students interested in aerospace medicine?
First, good training will carry you forward. I’m probably one of the highest-ranking physicians in the federal government. I got here through training and persistence and becoming an expert in my field. Have confidence in yourself.
Second, get a good foundation in a clinical specialty separate from aerospace medicine. Emergency medicine, neurology and family medicine are all good options. Get to know and see patients first.
Third, aerospace medicine is a rapidly evolving specialty right now. It includes folks who work for the FAA, military, NTSB and for commercial vendors. And with the Air Force expanding its role as a unified space command, there may be ever-increasing roles for aerospace medicine physicians.
There are definitely more opportunities, but there are not that many aerospace medicine residencies. They are very competitive. For the most part, it’s a second residency, an add-on. I am AOA board-certified in emergency medicine and ABMS board-certified in aerospace medicine, so I have a foot in both houses.