What It’s Like to Be the Only Doctor in Space

Commander Carmel Johnston gives Chief Science Officer Christiane Heinicke a hand.Photograph by Sheyna Gifford

Space is no place to be alone. On Earth, it may be uncomfortable, even oppressive—but by itself, being alone isn’t life-threatening. A person alone in space, however, is definitively lost: dead, or about to be. 

On simulated Mars—the slopes of a volcano in Hawai’i where I’m helping NASA learn how to plan interplanetary missions—no one is physically alone. We are a six-person crew: a soil scientist, a water specialist, an astrobiologist, an engineer, a space architect, and a doctor—that’s me. Up here, it’s my job to prevent physical and psychological harm. In the process of doing this, it’s become clear that being a space doctor comes with its own risk: a sort of

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