A group of University of Texas Medical Branch students, medical residents, faculty and staff from the aerospace medicine program gathered in Levin Hall on Friday for some face time with their colleague, Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor.
The live videoconference connection was clear, even though Auñón-Chancellor happened to be orbiting in space 250 miles above the Earth aboard the International Space Station.
A physician and engineer who completed her master’s degree in public health and her aerospace medicine residency at the medical branch, Auñón-Chancellor calls the Houston-Galveston area home. She has worked as a NASA flight surgeon since 2006 and was selected in 2009 as one of 14 members of the 20th NASA astronaut class.
In her spare time, she enjoys volunteering at the St. Vincent’s House community clinic on the island, according to her official bio.
Auñón-Chancellor and two other astronauts, one from Germany and one from Russia, launched on a Soyuz rocket as part of Expedition 56/57 on June 6, marking her first space mission.
She has been in space 150 days and expects to return to Earth a little before Christmas.
Her crew’s expected time in space was extended by about a month on Oct. 11 when the launch of another Soyuz rocket, intended to transport replacement personnel to the station, aborted after takeoff and its crew ended up instead in waters off Kazakhstan.
Asked whether the Soyuz failure affected her, Auñón-Chancellor was circumspect.
“We call it a spectacular failure,” she said, her hair floating above her head as she hovered in the air, wearing a UTMB T-shirt, her hands gesturing expressively. “That’s because the failure showed that the launch abort feature works.”
“It saved the crew’s lives. It was a wake-up call, a stark reminder of how dangerous it is to be in space.”
On a lighter note, asked what was her favorite thing about being in a micro-gravity environment, Auñón-Chancellor deftly turned a slow-motion flip.
“I love being able to work in any direction,” she said, tilting to the side and turning upside-down. “Floating to work every day, there’s nothing like it.”
While on the space station, Auñón-Chancellor has been conducting research on such topics as the effect on bones and muscles of living in a micro-gravity environment.
“We’ve been looking at the impact of inactivity on bone marrow,” she said, explaining that without gravity, the body is in a perpetual state of inactivity. Bones and muscles begin breaking down immediately.
“It’s an analog for people on bed rest on the ground,” she said.
Auñón-Chancellor also has been studying endothelial cells, the cells that line the interior surface of blood vessels.
“They love to grow in micro-gravity,” she said, information that could contribute to studies targeting vascular tumors.
To counter the effects on her own body, Auñón-Chancellor exercises two to two-and-a-half hours a day, using a device that can simulate weight loads for squats, crunches and curls, she said.
“A workout specialist on the ground gives us exercise prescriptions,” she said.
Auñón-Chancellor told a student on the aerospace medicine track that she wanted to be an astronaut from age 5, and studied electrical engineering for that reason before becoming a physician.
“I went to medical school in Houston, then I heard about the program at UTMB,” she said. “It worked out for me because everything was right there in my back yard.”
Both she and administrators at the medical center’s aerospace program said they see a bright future for work opportunities in space as more civilians enter into the business of launching rockets for space transport.
“UTMB is a very special place to train,” Auñón-Chancellor said. “It has such a diverse patient population, and it’s one of very few places with an aerospace medicine program in the country. The majority of flight surgeons at NASA come from UTMB.”
As the videoconference wrapped up, after Auñón-Chancellor waved goodbye to her colleagues and friends, she looked into the camera, smiled, stood-up straight, arms to her sides, and lifted off upward, out of the camera’s view, just like a rocket.