Down to Earth: NASA Flight Surgeon Roden Home from Russia

Dr. Sean Roden on the "Vomit Comet"

Where in the world is Dr. Sean Roden? He’s home—for now.

Only a year ago, the physician for Emergency Service Partners, L.P. returned to Texas after working for four months at the South Pole. This year, in mid-March, Roden returned from his latest adventure: five months in Russia.

Roden served as Russian Expeditionary Medical Support Flight Surgeon at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, a former military base about 60 km east of Moscow. His responsibilities included various training and support for astronauts working on the International Space Station (ISS).

“For the most part, it’s a pretty quiet job,” Roden said. “Probably the most dangerous thing we did in Russia was get on the bus,” he said, noting the relative lack of traffic safety there.

Dangerous or not, Roden did have a number of important duties, including supporting all of the astronauts’ hazardous training. For example, Roden said, custom-fitted space suits are tested by the astronauts in a vacuum chamber, and “there’s a risk of things going wrong there.” Similarly, some training is conducted in a pressurized area designed to simulate the space station. “I’m there in case anybody gets hurt,” Roden said.

Reentry is also a concern. “Star City has the world’s largest centrifuge,” Roden said. “These poor guys get spun to 8 g to simulate the capsule coming back into orbit.”

Roden was involved in the astronauts’ winter survival training as well. “Everybody going up on a Soyuz is trained so that if, for some reason, it landed and wasn’t found for a few days, they could survive,” Roden said. Although modern GPS technology largely alleviates this concern, he said Russians still make them train for three days in the wilderness at temperatures as low as minus 28 degrees Celsius. Roden would check astronauts twice a day for carbon monoxide exposure.

In addition, Roden supported Japanese Astronaut Corps and European Astronaut Corps. “Since it’s the International Space Station, they all have to train on everybody’s systems,” he said.

Roden lived in a dormitory-style building known as the Prophylactorium, or “Pophy,” a three-story facility originally used as a pre-flight quarantine for cosmonauts. “When you go up in space, your immune system changes, and you are subtly susceptible to infection” he said.

When he’s not in Russia, Roden also serves as a medical representative on Tiger Teams, assigned to solve serious problems such as when Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano’s Extravehicular Activity (EVA) space suit leaked last year.

In his spare time, Roden, a Senior Aviation Medical Examiner for the FAA, also conducts astronaut flight physicals.

Roden first joined ESP in 1999. The following year, he was selected for a two-year fellowship in aerospace medicine, and he ended up working at UTMB Wyle Laboratories as a flight surgeon associated with the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Roden’s work as an emergency physician for Emergency Service Partners may be the least exciting part of his career—but it remains one of his favorites. No matter where he’s been around the world, he always comes back to a place that feels like home.

“I love the Bryan-College Station ER so much, and ESP has been so good to me,” said Roden, who lives in League City. “I could get a job in Houston, but Paul Goen and Brandon Lewis are great medical directors, and I just really like the ER in College Station. So, every other weekend we drive up and bring the dog and we live in a hotel for three nights.”

Roden’s next major role with NASA will be serving as a deputy crew surgeon for ISS Expedition 42, assigned to Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore.

“Every mission has a flight surgeon and a deputy crew surgeon, who work together,” Roden said. The mission is scheduled to begin later this year. At that time, Roden will return to Star City for about a week, then head to a Russian facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, from which Wilmore and his crew will launch. “I’ll put him in his rocket and fly him from Kazakhstan, and then I’ll fly back to Houston,” Roden said. There, he will speak to the astronaut about once a week, and he will also be responsible for the health of Wilmore’s family during the mission. Six months later Roden will go back to Russia to be part of the landing and recovery party.

“After six months, the astronauts can be pretty debilitated,” Roden said. “Their inner ear is messed up and they are pretty dehydrated.” Roden will support the astronaut’s rehabilitation for 60 days following the mission.

 

Roden (left) visiting the Kremlin in Moscow.

Roden (left) and other flight surgeons visiting the Kremin in Moskow.

Roden (left) at Mission Control in Houston.

Roden (seated at left) at Mission Control in Houston.

All photos courtesy Sean Roden, MD.

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About Emergency Service Partners, L.P.

Founded in 1988, Emergency Service Partners, L.P. is a physician practice management group specializing in hospital emergency departments (EDs). The physician-owned and physician-managed company currently serves 25 EDs across Texas, including all five emergency rooms in the Bryan-based St. Joseph Health System. In addition, ESP provides pulmonary, intensive care, and sleep medicine services in Central Texas.