A Former Astronaut Inspires KGI Students, Faculty, Staff and ‘Dreamers’ Alike
Dr. Leroy Chiao speaks on biomedical challenges during spaceflight, shares images from space
As a boy in the 1960s, Leroy Chiao, PhD, was fascinated by early space exploration. Larger-than-life figures, such as John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin, were an inspiration, as were those first stunning images of the earth from outer space. Several decades later, former Astronaut Chiao shared equally stunning images with a group of KGI students, faculty and staff that he, himself, took while in space.
"These pictures are all about dreams and how as a kid the moon inspired me to want to become an astronaut," he said. "It's never too early or too late to think about what you want to do with your life...and most importantly to keep moving forward and to keep reassessing throughout your life and asking yourself if this is the direction you want to go. After all, you only go around once."
A veteran of four space missions, Dr. Chiao most recently served as commander and NASA science officer of Expedition 10 aboard the International Space Station. He has logged more than 229 days in space - over 36 hours of which was spent in Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA, or spacewalks). In fact, Dr. Chiao, who earned a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and an M.S. and a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara, used a number of images from his various missions during his Oct. 11 talk on "Biomedical Challenges During Spaceflight."
To illustrate the difficulties associated with exercise and physical conditioning in space, for example, he used a photograph of himself working out while tethered to a treadmill with an "elasticized harness that simulates gravity by pulling the user against the running surface."
During space flight, astronauts experience microgravity, a force one millionth as strong as the gravitational force experienced on Earth. As a result of the astronauts bones and muscles no longer having to bear the load required by earth's gravitational force, Chiao explained, they can begin to lose mass and strength. Meanwhile, the reduced physical activity necessitated by a tightly confined space and a shift of fluids into the upper body reduce cardiovascular capacity and lead to deconditioning.
To counteract or minimize microgravity's impact, astronauts engage in inflight exercise, such as cycling and treadmill running. Exercising in space, Chiao said, is similar to a person working out two hours a day and then spending the rest of the day in bed. Although not ideal, the effects of 120 minutes of daily exercise would probably be enough to counteract 22 hours of complete sloth.
Getting proper nutrition, psychological distress, combatting the effects of radiation exposure and mitigating the risks associated with intracranial pressure were among the other challenges Chiao discussed. Optical abnormalities, such as choroidal folds, are seen in approximately 20 percent of astronauts returning from lengthy missions and are thought to be the result of increased intracranial pressure brought on by the effects of microgravity on the human body.
For MBS student Kevin Kim, the opportunity to meet and talk with a former astronaut face to face was too good to pass up. "When you look up and see the universe, it can make you feel insignificant; it's so vast," he said. "It's incredible when you think that he was a NASA astronaut who played a role in exploring that universe. Some people look up to Hollywood stars, but he was actually looking up at and inspired by the real stars. Now, that's amazing."
Kim said that as someone who's interested in pharmacy and drug development, he's also intrigued by potential broader applications for NASA-developed technology, as well as the long-term benefits of the biomedical information gathered during space missions.
"You never know how this knowledge can be developed and adopted to apply to everyday uses. For example, LASIK eye surgery came from wavefront technology (which removed any visual distortion or aberrations from the atmosphere allowing astrophysicists to more accurately view images of the stars and planets)," Kim said. "Besides, one day, in order to advance our society, it may be necessary to colonize space."
Dr. Chiao's visit was sponsored by Dr. Matt Croughan, George B. and Joy Rathmann Professor and a friend of Dr. Chiao's from their days together as students at UC Berkeley, and The Amgen Bioprocessing Center. Dr. Chiao is part of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and the Center for Space Medicine and holds appointments from holds appointments in Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University.