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From ground control to Astronaut Tom

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Dec 16, 2012, 8:00 UTC

Sen—On December 19, Tom Marshburn, Roman Romanenko and Chris Hadfield will launch aboard a Soyuz rocket bound for the space station. They will become part of Expedition 34, commanded by NASA astronaut Kevin Ford. During his final preparations for his trip into space, Sen spoke with NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn.

As a newly trained doctor in small-town Ohio, Tom Marshburn used to swoop to the scene of car accidents aboard a helicopter. So it's fair to say that flying and urgent situations have been a part of the astronaut's life for many years, long before he joined NASA. He's about to get the chance to practice his craft again in space as he joins Expedition 34 aboard the International Space Station.

"For me, emergency medicine is all about being able to handle anything that comes in the door," Marshburn told Sen. "So, thinking on your feet, working as a team, the emergency physician has to be a team member, particularly in big codes, trauma codes. I think all that is very applicable to spaceflight."

Marshburn arrived at NASA in 1994 as a flight surgeon, responsible for monitoring astronaut health.

Very quickly, his capabilities gained attention in the agency. Marshburn became the co-chair of medical operations for the Shuttle/Mir space program between 1997 and 1998, spending time in Russia and getting to know the culture of the cosmonauts working in that country.

Tom Marshburn

Astronaut Tom Marshburn during training. Credit: NASA

In later years, he served as the lead flight surgeon for the STS-101 shuttle mission, as well as the Expedition 7 long-duration station mission. Marshburn also took command of medical operations for the station until he was selected as an astronaut in 2004.

"The transition was relatively easy to make," he said. "I was very fascinated with the effects of spaceflight, obviously, being a flight doc. So to have the chance to go as a physician and see it firsthand, [I was] very, very excited about that. Since I've made the transition, the cutoff has been pretty clean. I can't go back to the flight doc room."

Marshburn's first mission in space – STS-127, in 2009 – featured marathon spacewalks as he and crewmates worked to finish the Japanese Kibo module. This next flight will be a little less flash and a lot more long-term thinking.

Marshburn and his Soyuz crewmates – Canadian Chris Hadfield, and Russian Roman Romanenko – will spend five months aboard the International Space Station. Marshburn's role, in his words, will be acting as a guinea pig for the life sciences experiments aboard the station.

The long-term effects of spaceflight on the human body are still poorly understood. Radiation poses a threat to cells. Microgravity affects balance, bone density and even the optic nerve inside one's eye. NASA is still trying to figure out, for example, if vision is affected when the optic nerve alters.

"You remove the effects of gravity, you've got a high-radiation environment, high-vacuum environment, and these are things that just can't be recreated on the Earth," Marshburn said.

He praised the engineers on Earth who work to overcome these challenges as they design experiments for the astronauts to perform: "They're able to rewrite all of the engineering calculations that go with the basic laws of physics. And it's incredibly exciting when you talk to them."

Marshburn's top objective for his months on the station will be "just living in space and working up there."

But he wants to fulfill the responsibility he feels to his workmates who are bound to Earth, trying to accomplish scientific objectives aboard the station.

"This is a once-in-a-life opportunity. A lot of people are counting on us to get results when their lifelong experiment comes to a head. We're up there. We're at the point of the spear to get it done."