LEBANON — Growing up on Long Island in the 1960s, Jay Buckey was inspired by the Space Race as America first sent astronauts into orbit before landing men on the moon.
“I thought space exploration was just the coolest thing ever,” Buckey said. “To me it represented the future and what was possible by pushing technology as far as it could go.”
Years of missions to space, including the Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon, led up to the Apollo 11 moon landing. Buckey was 13 when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 50 years ago on July 20, 1969.
“It was really exciting,” he said.
Buckey knew then he wanted to be an astronaut, and after becoming an electrical engineer he started medical school. As he got further from childhood, he knew he would have to make a change if he wanted to pursue the dream that had inspired him.
“If I was interested in space I would really have to do something about it,” he said.
Buckey found work at a laboratory working on human physiology in space flight and he joined the research on the effects of keeping people in space for a long period of time. NASA, at this time, was recruiting specialists like Buckey to join the space missions. He went through the astronaut training program and got as close as being a back-up specialist for a 1993 mission.
Then in 1998, Buckey was chosen to go on the space mission to study how the brain and central nervous system adapt to the weightlessness of space flight.
Buckey’s work, and the work of other scientists, found that the body and the nervous system need gravity for proper function and development. The heart and blood vessels use gravity to pump blood to the brain. Muscles also need the pressure of gravity to keep balance.
“A lot of things in our body need gravity,” he said.
Buckey’s work at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center uses a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to treat cancer patients and others. Hyperbaric chambers are commonly used to treat divers suffering from decompression sickness, also known as “the bends,” something which astronauts are also susceptible to, he said.
“A spacesuit is a low pressure environment,” he said.
It started as a research project, but Buckey said that his unit treats patients daily. Cancer patients, for example, can end up with damage from radiation. Buckey’s teams can use the hyperbaric chamber to target high doses of oxygen to the damaged area. The result is an increase in oxygen to the blood supply which helps the body repair itself.
Buckey continues to work on NASA research, and is currently looking at bone loss in astronauts. Astronauts lose calcium because of the lack of gravity pressing down on their bones, and as a result they lose bone density. That can be fought with exercise in space, using a treadmill with resistive bands and other exercises, he said.
As a doctor, Buckey continues to live out the mission that brought him to space in the first place, pushing technology as far as it could go.