The University of Florida NASA Medical Support Team bids farewell to the Space Transport System

With the completion of STS-135 the Space Shuttle program closes out a glorious chapter in the American Space Program. It also closes out the University of Florida’s Medical Support Program, which provided highly trained medical teams to the manned launches and landings at Kennedy Space Center. On July 21, 2011 the final Medical Support Team will deploy to support their final mission.

In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster in January 1986 one of the recommendations of the incident review was to have specially trained physicians on hand to support the EMS and medical specialists at KSC. Following an in-depth selection process, the agency awarded medical support contract to the University of Florida’s Department of Emergency Medicine. The University of Florida has been the contracted supplier of these medical forces since then, over 20 years. The Department of Emergency Medicine supplies physicians who can operate in the pre-hospital environment, and have knowledge of both trauma care and medical resuscitation.

The teams are drawn from several U-F facilities including Shands Jacksonville, and multiple departments support the mission. In addition to the Emergency Department physicians, team members include Emergency Nurses and doctors drawn from Anesthesiology, Critical Care, Surgery, Psychiatry and Internal Medicine. Logistical and material support is provided by the Emergency Department office staff, Shands Pharmacy for stocking of the medications, and Shands Central Supply provides the surgical equipment, making this a truly multidisciplinary support team. The medical-support team completes intense NASA training courses on chemicals, space flight physiology, equipment and escape scenarios. After certification by NASA as a shuttle support physician, the physicians return twice a year to participate in simulations involving several potential launch or landing emergencies.

The typical mission support begins a week prior to launch with notice from NASA that their launch readiness review has approved the launch dates and sends official request for teams, usually for the target date plus the next 3-4 days. As most shuttle watchers know delays or “scrubs” are not unusual for such complex endeavors and teams have to be ready to cover all the potential launch times. During the next week the Emergency Department prepares the teams, arranges to rent a van to transport team members, and readies the medical supplies. The day of the mission the team musters 7 hours prior to launch time as the drive takes 3 hours and teams are required to be on station 4 hours before launch. The presence of the “Shands Docs” as the team is known is part of the countdown checklist and is required to keep the mission “GO” for launch. During the countdown our team is divided into a forward and reserve team, the latter is 3 miles away from the launch pad and in case the forward team becomes unable to assist due to the mishap. The team deploys to a forward position, typically on the crawler tracks as the countdown comes out of the 9 minute hold. The forward team deploys with the KSC EMS team and medical teams from other nearby facilities there to provide further medical forces in the event of a “Mass Casualty Incident”. The Shands Docs are there primarily to provide medical care for the astronauts and the close out crew on the tower assisting the astronauts in donning their space suits and boarding the orbiter. The only people closer to the shuttle at launch time are a special extraction team in an armored personnel carrier as they are within a potential blast zone. Prior to landings the procedure is slightly different. The team deploys shortly after the de-orbit burn and moves to an access road along the KSC runway. Once we hear the double sonic booms the search for the orbiter begins and the shuttle appears and lands quickly and on occasion will pass only a few hundred yards from the team’s location. Once the orbiter has rolled to a stop the team moves onto the runway and sets up the triage site on the runway. The team stays at this site until the crew has exited the orbiter and remains at KSC until they have returned to the crew quarters. There is a NASA tradition dating back to before the shuttle program of enjoying beans & cornbread after launches and once the teams are released and the mission is complete the team usually makes a stop at the KSC souvenir shop prior to the drive home.

It has been a tremendous honor for our medical teams to have been part of the Shuttle program and we all take away fantastic memories, amazing photos and many friendships formed from the close working relationships we have with the Kennedy Space Center personnel. The University of Florida, College of Medicine is proud to have been part of such an historic program and to work so closely with such high caliber people and organizations. We stand ready to support NASA and private industry as they move forward with the next chapter in American space exploration.

Go NASA; Go Gators!

– Kevin L. Ferguson MD FACEP; Director NASA Medical Support