MUSC News Center
MUSC student goes on NASA mission
Helen Adams | MUSC News Center | May 26, 2015
MUSC student Craig Kutz uses a flight simulator as NASA tests his reactions to stress during a Human Exploration Research Analog mission.
Ever since he was a kid growing up in a farming family on the outskirts of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Craig Kutz dreamed of being an astronaut. “I’m kind of obsessed with NASA,” he said. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is America’s space agency.
So Kutz, now a student at the Medical University of South Carolina, was thrilled to be chosen as one of four crewmembers for a NASA Human Exploration Research Analog mission. The crew spent two weeks in a hangar at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, on a simulated trip to an asteroid, while researchers monitored behavioral and biological responses to everything from sleep deprivation to communication problems.
“It was so much fun,” Kutz said. “People keep saying, ‘weren’t you stressed?’ Honestly, it was stressful, but every single part of it was fun. I thrive under pressure.”
There’s no doubt about that. Kutz is not only earning both a medical degree and a Ph.D. at MUSC through the Medical Scientist Training Program; he’s also a scuba diver who volunteers to clean the Great Ocean Tank at the South Carolina Aquarium, and in his spare time, he earned his pilot’s license.
As an undergraduate at Minnesota State University-Moorhead, he was a quarterback for his football team while maintaining a perfect grade point average.
“I’m not one to stay idle,” Kutz said. “I really like to do a lot of things.”
He’d like to become a NASA flight surgeon, so the mission was a chance to see what that might be like and put what he’s learned so far at MUSC to good use. “Because of my role as an M.D. - Ph.D. student, I’m trained in biomedical research. My main task on the mission was scientific operations.”
NASA’s goal was to assess medical capabilities, behavioral health and other factors during a space mission. “They’re trying to evaluate biomarkers and develop an algorithm to detect stress in astronauts,” Kutz said. “So we experienced a lot of the stressors that astronauts would be exposed to on a long duration spaceflight.”
Those stressors included the workload, the confined space, isolation and a lack of sleep. “At one point I was up for 36 hours straight,” Kutz said.
The crew also tackled difficult tasks assigned by NASA. “We worked with a robotics payload, and as a team, we figured out how to respond to challenges faced in rover assembly and testing.” NASA uses rovers, or space exploration vehicles, to travel on other planets.
Throughout the mission, cameras recorded the crew’s reactions and the team provided blood and saliva samples. As chief medical officer, Kutz did ultrasounds on his fellow crew members, sending images of target areas in their bodies to NASA. He also took their blood pressure and heart rate.
Everyone, including Kutz, had daily psychological evaluations as well.
The mission crew also did flight simulations, analyzed meteorite samples and tested systems and iPad applications that will be used on the International Space Station.
In the two hours a day Kutz had off, he sometimes watched the TV show “Cosmos,” featuring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. “He’s one of my heroes,” Kutz said.
Back at MUSC, Kutz said the mission confirmed his interest in aerospace medicine.
“It was an awesome experience, and it really gave me a good perspective on how research is conducted at NASA on a medical level,” Kutz said.
Professor David Bernanke, Ph.D., was not surprised that Kutz was chosen for the mission. “He leads by example, and the example he sets is one of striving toward excellence,” Bernanke said.
“His fellow students can see in Craig what can be accomplished with hard work and perseverance. He’s a great representative of the quality of our students and a wonderful ambassador from MUSC.”
Kutz hopes to land an aerospace medicine residency at the University of Texas Medical Branch and a fourth-year aerospace medicine clerkship at NASA. “Every scientist at one point dreams of being an astronaut,” he said.