US Air Force to focus on ‘space medicine’ culture

Stephen Kuper

With the growing importance of space in national and planetary security domains, the US Air Force is leading the charge to develop specialised ‘space medicine’ to support Space Command.

Medical Airmen within US Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) are making sure space operators are ready for future readiness requirements. It is the role of AFSPC medics to ensure space operators are medically ready to complete their mission, and to optimise 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. 

"Space is no longer a neutral, docile domain. It has become a contested environment where many state and non-state actors actively seek to disrupt US space capability," said Colonel Walter 'Sparky' Matthews, AFSPC Command Surgeon.

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 Colonel Brian Agee, Chief of Aerospace Medicine for AFSPC, which "also includes launch and recovery support for astronauts".

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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.

During the early years of the US 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 speciality is the ability to adapt to this pace. The unpredictability and vastness of space drives us to constantly anticipate, adapt and use existing data to predict future needs," COL Agee said.

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