August 2004 Bulletin

Orthopaedist has the “right stuff”

Robert L. Satcher Jr., MD, PhD, launches new career with NASA; some travel required

By Carolyn Rogers

The first day on a new job often inspires feelings of nervousness, excitement and anticipation. For 38-year-old Robert (“Bobby”) L. Satcher Jr., MD, PhD, however—June 14, 2004, was a “first day” like no other.

Instead of donning a standard-issue white lab coat, the orthopaedic surgeon reported for duty that Monday morning sporting a royal blue flight suit, a newly minted National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) I.D. card and a beaming smile. Not long after arriving at his new workplace—Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston—Dr. Satcher stood in the historic Apollo-era Mission Control Center, raised his right hand, and took the oath to become a member of NASA’s first astronaut candidate class in four years.

photo courtesy of NASA/Renee Bouchard
Robert L. Satcher Jr., one of six mission specialist candidates in NASA’s 2004 astronaut class, poses with a T-38 jet trainer aircraft at Ellington Field.

“I can do this…”

Although the path Dr. Satcher took to this day wasn’t a direct one, for him this “new job” is indeed the realization of childhood dreams—dreams that were reinforced as a young adult, when he heard several lectures by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alumnus Ronald McNair, an African-American astronaut who later was killed aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

“I saw Ron McNair speak and I was inspired by him,” says Dr. Satcher. “Then, I watched the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, and it really made me think about what being an astronaut means. I thought, ‘I can do this…I should do this.’”

Photo courtesy of NASA/Renee Bouchard NASA’s 11-member 2004 class of astronauts are (front row, from left): Dr. Satcher; Christopher J. Cassidy, Richard R. Arnold II; and Robert S. Kimbrough; (second row): Jose M. Hernandez; Thomas H. Marshburn, MD; Joseph M. Acaba; Dorothy M. Metcalf-Lindenburger; James P. Dutton Jr. and Shannon Walker. Not pictured is Randolph J. Bresnik.

For the next 15 years, however, Dr. Satcher’s aspirations for space travel took a back seat to his dream of becoming a physician. After receiving a PhD in chemical engineering from MIT, he earned his medical degree at Harvard University School of Medicine. Next came an orthopaedic surgery residency at the University of California, San Francisco, and an orthopaedic oncology fellowship at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Lure of space proves enduring

By the year 2000, however, outer space beckoned and Dr. Satcher decided to act on his lifelong fascination with space travel by sending an application to NASA. No astronaut candidates were selected for 2001, however, and recruitment efforts for the 2002 class were scuttled in April 2001 when NASA put all applications “on hold” indefinitely. It wasn’t until NASA reopened the application process in May 2004 that Dr. Satcher had an opportunity to contend for one of the coveted spots.

He has no regrets about the wait. “It gave me some time to practice medicine before I embarked on this adventure,” he says.

In 2001, he accepted a position as assistant professor of orthopaedic medicine at Northwestern University Medical Center in Chicago. He treated child and adult bone cancer at Northwestern Memorial and Children’s Memorial hospitals, and held a research position at Northwestern’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and Institute for Bioengineering and Nanoscience in Advanced Medicine.

Most recently, Dr. Satcher has been working to develop bone substitutes for use in cancer patients, investigating new drugs for the treatment of bone cancer and leading research on why tumors metastasize to the bone. He is one of a small group of surgeons in the country with expertise in limb-salvage surgery, in which only the cancerous part of the bone is removed and replaced by a bone graft or metal or plastic endoprosthesis.

Dr. Satcher’s combined interest in service and science has also led him on various humanitarian missions to underserved areas, with a focus on West Africa; recent trips have included Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Gabon.

“Our department has been honored to have this man lead our division of musculoskeletal oncology,” says Michael F. Schafer, MD, chair of Northwestern University’s department of orthopaedic surgery. “Dr. Satcher is an outstanding researcher, educator and clinician, and he has served as a positive role model for our medical students and residents. The department’s loss is NASA’s and the country’s gain.”

photos courtesy of NASA/Renee Bouchard
Former astronaut and U.S. Senator John H. Glenn, Jr., (right) talks with Dr. Satcher. The Space Shuttle Enterprise can be seen in the background.

“A wonderful phone call”

In early April, Dr. Satcher answered what turned out to be a life-altering telephone call.

The NASA official on the other end of the line simply asked, “Hey, would you like to come and work with us?”

“It was a wonderful phone call,” Dr. Satcher says. “Obviously, it made my day.”

His selection also came as a “very pleasant surprise,” he admits. “The interviewing process at NASA is unique in that you really don’t have any idea of whether or not you’re in the final consideration for being an astronaut. The interview process itself was unlike anything else I’ve been through—because of the extent of the psychological and physical testing. But after that, you have no idea if you’re going to make it into the final selection.”

On May 6, Dr. Satcher happily joined his fellow candidates at the National Air and Space Museum outside Washington, D.C., for the official announcement of the “next generation of explorers.” Former Senator John Glenn spoke at the ceremony, which was part of the annual Space Day celebration. Dr. Satcher was joined there by family members, including his father, Robert, a professor of chemistry at St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va.; and his uncle, David Satcher, MD, the former U.S. Surgeon General.

Dr. Satcher’s pediatrician wife, D’Juanna—who had given birth to their daughter just one week before—watched a live Web cast of the ceremony on a projection screen at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

“Next generation of explorers”

The 11 astronaut candidates were selected from a field of 3,000 qualified applicants. After NASA officials had winnowed the group down to 100 possible candidates, finalists were divided into five groups and screened in week-long series of psychological tests, interviews and medical exams from September through December 2003.

Dr. Satcher is one of two physicians in the new class. Of the 11 class members, two are training to be spacecraft pilots, three will be educator astronauts, and six, including Dr. Satcher, are training to be mission specialists.

Mission specialists work closely with both the commander and pilot to coordinate on-board operations involving crew activity planning and use and monitoring of the shuttle’s consumables (such as fuel, water and food). Mission specialists also perform on-board experiments, spacewalks and payload handling functions involving the remote manipulator system.

Training and evaluation

Final selection as an astronaut depends upon satisfactory completion of an 18-month to two-year training and evaluation period. For the class of 2004, that training process officially began Monday, June 21, at Pensacola Naval Air Station (NASP) in Pensacola, Fla. Their training started at the Navy Survival Training Institute, with the altitude chamber, ejection seat training, water survival training and parasail school. The team will also receive flight training on the T-34 aircraft.

photo courtesy of NASA/Renee Bouchard
Dr. Satcher is fitted with a parachute harness during water survival training at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

Upon completion at NASP, the candidates will continue training at the Johnson Space Center, where they’ll fly T-38s at roughly 600 knots (691 mph). When that training is complete, they’ll go on to Naval Air Station Brunswick, Maine, for land survival training.

After successful completion of the instruction and evaluation period, Dr. Satcher and the other astronauts will be eligible to be assigned to a mission. During their NASA careers, members of the 2004 class may help develop the Crew Exploration Vehicle, study the effects of microgravity on the human body and possibly help plan a return trip to the moon.

Bone, muscle degeneration research needed

To some, the field of orthopaedics may seem light years away from the world of space exploration. In reality, Dr. Satcher’s specialized experience has prepared him well for this endeavor.

“Orthopaedic oncology is a unique discipline that blends the biological sciences with the mechanical sciences,” says Dr. Schafer. “Dr. Satcher will be able to build on the foundation of previous investigations of weightlessness and add an entirely different perspective.”

Dr. Satcher brings his experience to NASA at a key time, when the agency is working to realize its new “Vision for Space Exploration” to extend a human presence across the solar system. This vision requires NASA to focus its research efforts on studying the effects of long-duration space flight on humans, knowledge that is critical for building a base on the moon and traveling to Mars. Major research questions center on bone and muscle degeneration in microgravity.

“One of the biggest problems with living and working in space is bone loss, due to the microgravity environment,” Dr. Satcher explains. “A mission to Mars would mean subjecting the body to months of microgravity, so it’s critical that we discover ways to preserve bone mass for when people re-enter Earth’s gravitational field.”

Scientist, explorer, humanitarian

Describing himself as part scientist, part explorer and part humanitarian, Dr. Satcher is grateful that, as an astronaut, he’ll have the opportunity to fulfill all three ambitions at once.

“It’s difficult to predict what the benefits of space travel and space-based research will be to those of us on the ground,” Dr. Satcher says. “So many treatments that we use in medicine, and so many scientific and technological advances that have transformed society have come about because of exploration and from going out into the unknown. Space is the one venue that has the highest potential for benefiting people if we continue to be serious about exploring it.”

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