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Dartmouth professor who flew on NASA mission backs future exploration of space

  • Dr. Jay Buckey talks with patient Marcel Choquette, of Newport, Vt. before a treatment in a hyperbaric chamber at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Thursday, July 18, 2019. Registered nurse Judy Kurtis helps ready Choquette. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • While training in Houston in Nov. 1997, Jay Buckey stands inside one of the mock-ups of the space lab in which he and other crew members will conduct their mission in April 1998. The real lab will be carried inside the shuttle's cargo hold. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jay Buckey, second from right, waves to a gathering with the space shuttle Columbia crew at the Kennedy Space Center landing strip on April 13, 1998, four days before Columbia's scheduled departure. Also shown from left are Richard Linnehan, Dave Williams, Jim Pawelczyk, Fay Hire, Columbia Commander Richard Searfoss, Buckey and pilot Scott Altman. (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove)



Valley News Correspondent
Thursday, July 18, 2019

LEBANON — Fifty years ago Saturday, millions of Americans tuned in to watch the Apollo 11 lunar module land on the moon.

Thirteen-year-old Jay Buckey, who grew up on Long Island, was one of those eager viewers. Watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take those first steps on the moon, Buckey fell in love with space.

This childhood admiration grew into a lifetime commitment to NASA research and space exploration.

“I always thought that space was a very exciting thing and something I wanted to be a part of,” said Buckey, a professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, medical director of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s hyperbaric medicine program and director of its space medicine innovation laboratory.

In 1998, Buckey fulfilled his dream of going to space. As a payload specialist for the final Spacelab mission, he conducted a number of studies on how entering and leaving space affects the nervous system and brain. While the research isn’t totally conclusive due to a lack of further studies, it did suggest that the presence of gravity is essential to certain aspects of development, such as balance and the nervous system, he said.

Buckey, a Hanover resident, still remembers the feeling of liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“It’s very exciting. For launch morning, it’s the first time I was in the space shuttle where it actually got turned on,” he said.

Today, at 63, Buckey continues to conduct research for NASA. He also runs the clinical hyperbaric oxygen program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. This treatment consists of a chamber with high-pressure levels of oxygen, which can help heal a damaged blood supply. It’s useful as therapy for people suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, severe anemia or radiation injuries, among other health problems. The program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock started because Buckey needed the chamber to study a bubble detector, a technology for detecting decompression sickness.

Several years ago, Buckey briefly met Buzz Aldrin at a conference about commercial spaceflight. “It was quite an experience because I remember as a kid seeing those moonwalks and how amazing that was,” he said.

Buckey hopes the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 landing rekindles that sense of awe.

“It’s an important time to appreciate, to form a tribute to what was done because, I think, as time has gone on, it’s become more apparent how remarkable an accomplishment it was. Almost like an accomplishment beyond its time,” Buckey said.

“On the other hand, too, it’s a sense of a little bit of sadness wondering what happened? Why isn’t that more common? Why haven’t we been back there or onto places beyond that?”

While many people proudly recall the moon landing as an enormous accomplishment for the country, just five days before the liftoff, barely over half of Americans were supportive of the mission, Buckey noted.

“At the time, a lot of people were questioning it,” he said. “It just shows us that in order to do something like space exploration it requires a commitment to the future and the willingness to spend money on things that might not necessarily show an immediate payoff.”

Laura Earle can be reached at lauraearle.515@gmail.com.