Updated: December 11, 2021 8:12:46 am
Indian-origin Dr Anil Menon, SpaceX’s first flight surgeon, will be among the new recruits who will report for duty in January 2022 for NASA’s 2021 Astronaut Candidate Class which will train for the agency’s future missions.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Ukrainian and Indian immigrants, Dr Menon has a Bachelor’s Degree in Neurobiology and a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering. He did his Doctor of Medicine in Emergency Medicine and then in Aerospace Medicine. Dr Menon started as a NASA flight surgeon in 2014 before moving to SpaceX in 2018 to serve as the lead flight surgeon.
In an interview with indianexpress.com, Dr. Menon, who likes to be called an aerospace medicine doctor, speaks about the future of aerospace medicine, his work at SpaceX and his love for Indian food.
You were selected from over 12,000 applicants. Did this news come as a surprise to you?
Dr Anil Menon: It came as a big surprise, surprises are good. You can never be too confident with 12,000 people applying for 10 jobs. There are definitely a lot of qualified people. So I was very excited, overjoyed, and happy about the opportunity. I was in California and got a call and the person started talking about the Dragon capsule because I was working at SpaceX at the time. I thought it was a business call. And halfway through it, it turned out to be a joke. The Chief of the Astronaut Office said “I’m just kidding, do you want to be an astronaut?’’ and I said, “Sign me up”.
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And at that moment, my wife walked into the room and just started crying. Because she could just see the joy on my face. So it was a great moment for both of us.
Why did you study both medicine and engineering?
I think that working in space and working at NASA, it’s really good to combine engineering with some of the sciences. So for the Dragon vehicle, there are several engineering questions but also need medical approaches. For example, in the health stabilisation system, you need to know the percentage of oxygen and other such parameters. So it’s important to know the language of engineers and doctors.
You were the crew flight surgeon for the International Space Station? What was that role like?
A crew flight surgeon is a doctor that takes care of astronauts in space travel. When there, I talk to them just like how I am talking to you now via video call. They are in space and I am on the ground. If they experience stomach pain or get a rash, they don’t have a doctor around. And I help out.
So you are a space doctor?
It’s really interesting to take care of people in space. If we have to set up a sustainable Moon presence and send people to Mars, we need more such doctors around.
Aerospace medicine is the most rapidly expanding field in medicine. It’s very exciting and there are limitless opportunities in that field, just like radiology or dermatology or any other field.
When I started at NASA, there were just 20 doctors there. Then one job opened up at SpaceX, and I was lucky to get that. But over the last three years, I have worked with hundreds of medical students, paramedics, nurses, and this will continue on into the future.
You were SpaceX’s first flight surgeon. Tell us about that experience.
When I went to SpaceX, we worked on the Dragon capsule to get NASA astronauts up to space. And as a doctor, I would take care of them on launch. And then I would be the first person to put them in, and the first person to pull them out of the capsule.
And now as a NASA astronaut candidate, I’ll have that opportunity to actually flip roles and fly with them.
On India and Indian food
When people are in space, food tastes different because your nose gets stuffy because the fluid starts floating up there. So I have heard from a lot of astronauts that Indian food is their favourite food because it’s spicier. It’s a medical fact.
As someone from India, I’m happy to represent the larger world. My Achan (father) is from the Malabar region and I took my wife to Kerala three years ago, we went to Cochin, Alleppey, and crossed over to Tamil Nadu. I wanted to show my wife what a fantastic place Kerala is and she loved it.
Kerala has a special spot in my heart. The people are so welcoming but they are a bit amazed when they hear my accent. They are so warm and inviting. Spending time in India really helped set me up for this job, because it is those same skills that I’ll need to apply as an astronaut in the future. India is such a diverse multicultural place, every single state with a different language, different culture and there is so much history.
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