Growing Air Force’s space medicine culture
By Shireen Bedi, Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
/ Published January 17, 2019
FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- As space continues to play an increasingly critical role in our nation’s defense, the need for the space medicine specialty grows. Medical Airmen within U.S. Air Force Space Command are making sure space operators are ready for future readiness requirements.
“Space is no longer a neutral, docile domain,” said Col. Walter “Sparky” Matthews, AFSPC Command Surgeon. “It has become a contested environment where many state and non-state actors actively seek to disrupt U.S. space capability.”
It is the role of AFSPC medics to ensure space operators are medically ready to complete their mission, and to optimize their performance, while also preparing for the future of space medicine.
Space operators have unique readiness requirements because they are employed in place, meaning they must maintain readiness and high vigilance every day.
Currently in the Air Force, “space medicine is the field of medicine that cares for the space operators who launch, monitor and operate our satellite systems,” said Col. Brian Agee, Chief of Aerospace Medicine for AFSPC. “It also includes launch and recovery support for astronauts.”
To prepare for future readiness needs, AFSPC medics are developing the requirements and training for future space surgeons, building on current training requirements.
Specifically, AFSPC medical Airmen are focusing on four areas of interest: managing fatigue exposure; defining fitness to meet the needs of line commanders; working within the specification of deployment and readiness; and evaluating retention standards for certain conditions.
“We are also pursuing space operations basic training for all medical personnel who support the space mission,” said Matthews. “It is important that all medical personnel, including nurses, techs and administrators who support the space medicine mission have a common baseline understanding of what makes the space domain different.”
During the early years of the U.S. space program, Air Force doctors led the way in the space medicine field, but NASA later assumed most medical responsibilities for its astronauts. Today, understanding of the space environment’s effect on the human body is growing at a fast pace. As space becomes an ever more important domain, AFSPC medical Airmen continue to keep up with that growth in knowledge.
Space medicine builds off aerospace medicine and ties closely to occupational and preventive medicine, accounting for the impact that the space environment has on the body. This includes oxygen, pressure, acceleration, radiation, communication issues, logistics, and isolation. Space medicine has to account for all of this.
“Part of what makes space medicine a distinct specialty is the ability to adapt to this pace,” said Agee. “The unpredictability and vastness of space drives us to constantly anticipate, adapt and use existing data to predict future needs.”
“Space is a completely different and separate domain from any other in which the U.S. Air force operates,” said Matthews. “This is the reason for our development of a team of space medicine specialists that exist in a space medicine culture.”
AFSPC medical Airmen like Matthews and Agee are eager to take on the challenges and prepare Airmen for future readiness requirements.
“These are exciting times and I am fortunate to be involved, and grateful for this opportunity to be part of our revolutionary undertakings here at AFSPC,” said Agee.