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Alumni Connection

Association news & events.
March 1, 2005

Dr. Satcher, Astronaut?
Bone loss a high priority for NASA

Nasa has a new vision for manned space exploration in the 21st century, one of travel far beyond today’s limits. Realizing that vision, however, will require not only some significant technological advances but physiological advances as well. That’s because the loss of bone mass becomes a more serious problem for astronauts the longer they travel outside Earth’s atmosphere.

Which may be one reason NASA recently accepted MIT alum and award-winning orthopedic surgeon Robert L. “Bobby” Satcher ’86, PhD ’93, into its astronaut training program. 

Satcher joins NASA at a time when biotechnology has become critical to planning the type of long-duration space travel that NASA envisions. The 38-year-old Virginia native is one of 11 candidates chosen from a field of more than 4,000 applicants to form the 2004 astronaut class, the first new class since the Columbia space shuttle accident. Since June, Satcher has been undergoing basic training, paying his dues, he says, “to learn all the skills you will need to be an astronaut and be assigned a mission.” In addition to classrooms and simulators, the candidates’ training involves experience on the T-38 training vehicle and exposure to microgravity conditions through 30-second bursts on the KC-135 “Vomit Comet.” There’s extensive physical and psychological training, including water and wilderness survival. The class must also learn Russian.

Satcher’s orthopedic-research background makes him a good fit for the NASA program, which has placed a high priority on research on microgravity and the musculoskeletal system. After receiving his PhD in chemical engineering from MIT, Satcher attended medical school at Harvard University and completed his residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of California, San Francisco; he also held a fellowship in orthopedic oncology at the University of Florida. He has received numerous awards and research grants in orthopedic oncology and was most recently an assistant professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and an attending physician in orthopedic surgery at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

“I watched the Apollo launches as a kid, and my interest grew in college with the space shuttle program,” he says. He was also inspired by Ron McNair, an MIT alumnus and African-American astronaut killed in the Challenger explosion.

Most of Satcher’s orthopedic research thus far has explored the questions of how cancer spreads to the skeleton and what possible bone substitutes might repair damaged bone.

Bone is living tissue that has both an organic and an inorganic component. Organic collagen and calcium-rich mineral deposits are interwoven to form strong yet flexible skeletons. But after just a few days in space, astronauts show a much higher concentration of calcium in the bloodstream, reflecting a marked decrease in bone density known as “disuse osteoporosis.” Extended tours aboard Russia’s Mir space station have resulted in bone mass loss of up to 20 percent, according to NASA. Astronauts regain most of their bone mass after several months back on Earth, but not all of it, which can cause health problems later in life.

The current approach to slow disuse osteoporosis is resistance exercise provided simply by onboard exercise machines, Satcher says. “Exercise cuts down on the rate of bone loss, but there is still loss. When astronauts come back, their bone mass usually is two standard deviations below the norm, but that’s a vast improvement over what it used to be.” What causes calcium loss in space is still unknown. But as microgravity research on board the International Space Station (ISS) progresses, answers will come.

Satcher says he is fortunate to have been surrounded by role models who stressed education, particularly in math and science. His uncle, David Satcher, was the U.S. surgeon general during the Clinton administration. “My uncle has impacted the nation as a whole and a lot of people on a personal level,” he says. “It is tremendous having somebody like that available to you to ask questions of.”

Satcher says that, just as Ron McNair piqued his interest in space, he hopes to interest “and maybe even inspire” young African Americans to become astronauts. “If not that, I would hope to at least encourage an interest in math and science.”

For now, Satcher is excited to help NASA move toward its future goals, which include completing the ISS, returning to the Moon, and going to Mars and beyond.

“The goals are very realistic,” Satcher says. “The space station is about one-half complete. We went to the Moon 35 years ago, so we know that can be done. Both rovers on Mars have been functioning for almost a year now. Sending people there is a big step, but it is certainly something that is technically possible to do.”

The main question, says Satcher, is whether the commitment of the nation is there. “I feel, and most of the people at NASA feel, that it is,” he says.

Fermilab’s New Director
Looking Ahead

In November 2004, the Universities Research Association appointed Pier Oddone ’65 as the new director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL.

“When I was appointed, I felt honored,” said Oddone, “and then very modest because of all the work to be done. But I’m looking forward to it.”

Fermilab, a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory, conducts particle physics research and is home to the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator, the four-mile long Tevetron.

Raymond L. Orbach, director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, called Oddone superbly qualified to guide Fermilab into the future.

“We are very fortunate that Pier Oddone will become the next director of Fermilab,” Orbach said. “He is an outstanding scientist and a proven leader and manager whose appointment serves Fermilab, the Office of Science, and the nation well.”

Just weeks after his appointment, Oddone, who will continue to serve as deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, CA, through July, was already looking to the future. European physicists plan to build a large hadron collider in Geneva, Switzerland, by 2007, allowing scientists to penetrate further into the structure of matter and recreate the conditions prevailing in the early universe, just after the Big Bang. As a result, part of Oddone’s responsibilities will be to generate support for a next-generation linear collider, which he hopes to have built at Fermilab by 2015, and which would serve as a complement to the large hadron collider. In fact, the Department of Energy and international scientists have already invested $200 million in research and development for this very project.

“There has been a revolution in the last few years in terms of discoveries,” Oddone said. “We have discovered that the universe is accelerating, not contracting, but we’re still clueless about 95 percent of it. This is a very interesting time for particle physics.”

Travel Journal
Climbing Angkor Wat

In October 2004, Samuel Jay Keyser HM led an MIT Alumni Travel Program trip through the Mekong Delta. The following is a snippet from the travel journal he kept as he and fellow alumni explored Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

As I clamber up the side of Angkor Wat’s central prasat, I imagine the ghosts who raised these steps climbing beside me. It is a step pyramid, a structure first introduced at Saqqara by the Egyptian genius Imhotep, three thousand years earlier. It is a square-tiered layer cake. At the highest layer are five towers, one in the center and one at each corner. Every visible surface is adorned with carvings from Hindu mythology and Khmer history. When the sculptors ran out of things to represent, they chiseled folds into the doorjambs and made tiny slanted patterns in the folds. They didn’t stop until every last inch of stone was sculpted. One expects these buildings to appear massive, heavy, like the temples of Egypt. It is exactly the opposite. All that surface ornamentation levitates the terraces. The towers are gas-filled balloons, straining to rise. That, in stark contrast to the architecture of stony massiveness that is the mark of ancient Egypt, is the architectural genius of Angkor Wat.

Tech Reunions ’05
You’ve Got Mail

Registration packets for Tech Reunions ’05 should be arriving in your mailbox by mid-March. As in years past, alumni will also be able to register online at We’ve got a full lineup of events that are sure to keep you busy. In addition to the regular favorites, such as the history-of-hacks presentation, Reunion Row, Tech Night at the Pops, and numerous campus tours, this year’s Tech Day program will explore the field of bioengineering research. Be sure to sign up for your favorite events early, as spaces do fill up quickly.

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