NASA flight surgeon out of this world

By Rob South

See, if we were in space we would not have to worry about that," said NASA flight surgeon Dr. Douglas Hamilton as gravity dragged down the University of Calgary sign from the podium for the third time during his Friday night lecture.

Hamilton continued to keep his audience enthralled with his unique blend of scientific knowledge and humour as he accepted the 2000 Distinguished Alumni Award. Although he’s mostly known for his work with NASA, Hamilton’s numerous achievements also include finding new uses for lasers in crime work, the oil and gas industry and medical surgery.

"With Doug it is the combination of knowledge and skills that make him unique," said friend, former employer and former Dean of Medicine Eldon Smith. "It soon became apparent to us that he could fix anything."

Hamilton started working for a research group Smith headed in 1983, after he received his BSc and MSc from the University of Alberta. The research opportunities in medicine encouraged Hamilton to attend medical school at the U of C.

"I thought I worked pretty hard at university," said U of C Alumni Association President Jeff Larson. "But when you hear of a guy who got his MD, PhD and was valedictorian all in the same year, it makes you realize there is some space between the pedal and the floor."

Hamilton accepted all this praise with a degree of humility as he showed the crowd a stack of rejection letters he received through the course of his life, including one from the University of Toronto’s medical school. He then proceeded to thank his wife and family for all their help in his development, singling out the attention his brother gave him as a child.

"Everyone says it takes a village to raise a child," said Hamilton. "But in my case he thought I was the village idiot."

Hamilton told the audience that the majority of a NASA flight surgeon’s work involves prevention and countermeasures to ensure problems don’t happen. To demonstrate, he played a video of a dancing one-eyed alien singing the disco classic "I will survive" only to be suddenly squished flat by a falling disco ball.

"No matter what you think about risk something is going to bite you," exclaimed Hamilton to an amused crowd.

The potential problems facing a flight surgeon range from how to wash an eye out in zero gravity to using electric shock to stop cardiac arrest without short-circuiting the whole electrical system of a space shuttle.

While Hamilton has not been in space, the possibility does exist for him to go in the future. He successfully completed all of NASA’s training for space travel, including maintaining consciousness under nine G’s of pressure.

"I still believe that one day Doug will reach that aspiration," said Smith.

Most of Hamilton’s current work goes into establishing systems that can deal with health situations that may arise on the earth-orbiting space station NASA is building in conjunction with Russia. Astronauts will stay on the station for up to nine months in micro gravity, a situation which can cause a number of health problems.

One problem is orthostatic intolerance, a condition caused by the body depleting its blood supply in zero gravity, leaving astronauts extremely light headed when they return to normal gravity.

"Some astronauts can’t stand for more than 10 minutes," exclaimed Hamilton.

He closed his lecture with a message of hope about how the space program teaches mankind to appreciate Earth’s complexities.

"I think the space station is amazing because we are taking these great international minds to deal with an almost entirely technical problem, to try to sustain life in an environment for several months," said Hamilton. "Maybe this will help us appreciate our own environment and realize we can’t conquer it."

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