Combining work and fun – a trip to ESA HQ

Prakhar Srivastava is a medical student at the University of Manchester with a keen interest in space physiology. With one eye on becoming a Flight Surgeon in the future, Prakhar managed to secure himself  a place on the European Space Agency’s (ESA) five day residential course in Belgium. From q and a’s with Major Tim Peake to visiting the Euro Space Centre museum, the five days were jam packed with incredible insight and unforgettable opportunities. Hear about them all from Prakhar below…

In December of 2018, a friend alerted me to an opportunity from the European Space Agency – a five-day residential course focused on Human Space Physiology, held at their Education HQ in Transinne Belgium.

Securing a spot involved a competitive application process and for all who were selected, it was an all-expenses trip involving a series of lectures, a group project and chance to meet and work with fellow space nerds from across Europe…

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What the hell is Space Physiology?

I’d developed an interest in space physiology in 2016 when Major Tim Peake took the headlines and produced several educational videos about spaceflight, including on how his body had reacted to weightlessness, a central subject of the field. Other prominent topics include how the body reacts to the stress of launch, the life-support systems used, and the consequences experienced on return to Earth (often the most unpleasant and debilitating).

We received a series of lectures on all these topics and the combination of experts from across Europe and the fact we were based at the ESA Education HQ, made this experience inexplicably exciting. Additionally, considering the human body in space forced me to look at physiology from a different perspective. I left with a renewed appreciation of how human physiology can be both wonderfully simple and unfathomably complex, and learning about the countermeasures which astronauts utilise to maintain health have made me view the problems of Earthbound patients with a different lens. Moving forward, I hope to engage in space biomedical research during my time as a doctor and bring its insights to the population I serve.

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What do space doctors actually do?

Admittedly, the title of, “Space Doctor”, or as they’re formally known, “Flight Surgeon”, has quite the ring to it and current ESA flight surgeon, Sergi Vaquer shed some light on this career path during the course.

Primarily, the goal is to anticipate and prevent any ill-health in astronauts both during and after a mission in space. This involves pre-mission physical preparation, and an in-space exercise program, to mitigate the negative effects of weightlessness on bone, muscle and heart health, as well as psychological preparation for the lonely, remote and confined aspects of a mission. Typically, flight surgeons are based at Space Agency headquarters and work in-person with astronauts’ pre-mission, and via telecommunications to those aboard the ISS.

Working with physiologists is common, as all astronauts are effectively human experiments, and biomedical engineers are crucial in utilising the life-support technology aboard the ISS. We also had the pleasure of a Q&A session with Tim Peake, who emphasised that this unique doctor-patient relationship is highly dependent on trust, especially considering the flight surgeon’s obligation to deem an astronaut unfit for spaceflight if the appropriate evidence arises.

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Most flight surgeons are fully trained medical doctors and often within the fields of emergency/acute medicine, general practice, general surgery, anaesthetics/intensive care, or military/aviation medicine. For more information on this career path, or biomedical space research in general, the ESA education website contains useful articles, internship opportunities and a young graduate trainee program.

Meeting my fellow space nerds

Space physiology is not a usual topic of conversation for medical students, which made this course a unique avenue for me to connect with others who are interested in the subject. As a group, we visited the Euro Space Centre museum and the European Space Security and Education Centre to learn about the history of space exploration and ESA’s current satellite-based activities respectively.

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But best of all, we often used our evenings to unwind together in the hotel bar or restaurant. It is always intriguing to hear how other nations differ in their medical training, patient demographics and attitudes to health. I also continued to realise how lucky we are as British citizens that English is ubiquitously spoken across Europe (I’ve returned determined to brush up my French/German…)

Overall, like most of my educational experiences, I derived the most inspiration from my peers and I hope to encounter many of the 2019 course cohort in the future as friends and colleagues.


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