The first American doctor in space continues his mission

It's been nearly four decades since Dr. Joseph Kerwin became the first American physician in space. But for Kerwin, 79, his mission is ongoing.

It's been nearly four decades since Dr. Joseph Kerwin became the first American physician in space. But for Kerwin, 79, his mission is ongoing.

In 1973, Kerwin spent 28 days in space, serving as science-pilot of the first crew aboard the Skylab space station. (The photo at right shows Kerwin performing a dental examination on Commander Charles Conrad in the Skylab Medical Facility.)

Kerwin, also a U.S. Navy flight surgeon, went on to head up the on-orbit branch of NASA's Astronaut office and in the early 1980s served as NASA's senior science representative in Australia. After a three-year stint as director of space and life sciences at the Johnson Space Center, Kerwin left NASA to join the Lockheed Corporation. From 1997 to 2004, Kerwin was president of the Life Sciences Special Business Unit of Wyle Laboratories.

Despite time away from NASA, Kerwin remained involved with space medicine. He is currently a member of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute's User Panel, which consists of current and former astronauts and flight surgeons who help determine research areas and strategies to improve crew health.

"Throughout his career, Dr. Kerwin has been at the forefront of space medicine and biomedical research," said Dr. Jeffrey Sutton, NSBRI director. "Today, he continues to have an active role at NSBRI, where his medical background and long-duration spaceflight experiences are valuable in the Institute's efforts to protect astronaut health and improve health care on Earth."

When Kerwin received an honorary degree last week from the Baylor College of Medicine, where the research institute is based, he explained the importance of his work. "Exploration medicine is understanding and dealing with normal humans in abnormal environments, and space medicine deals with the most challenging environment that any frontier presents," he said, according to a media release. "Our job is to understand it -- and ourselves more deeply -- and to protect our explorers from its threats."

Photo, top: Courtesy of NASA

Photo, bottom: Dr. Jeffrey Sutton and Dr. Joseph Kerwin

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com