Doctors in space: CU’s Boulder and School of Medicine campuses will offer a joint degree program to send MDs to infinity and beyond

Courtesy of CU Anschutz Medical Campus
University of Colorado students tend to an injured crewmate during a simulation exercise in southern Utah. This class will be offered as part of CU’s new joint MA/MS space travel program.

Space travel is becoming a reality for a growing public.

The world’s billionaires are donning spacesuits. Celebrities who made their names pretending to explore the vast cosmos have now actually seen the curvature of Earth. Tom Cruise plans to shoot a film in space

And all of these people letting go of the surly bonds of Earth means a higher need for an earthly necessity — doctors. 

Dr. Arian Anderson, a physician who works with NASA to mitigate human medical risk in space, said with the growth of space travel, there comes a need for people aside from engineers to put on spacesuits. 

“We have seen a lot of really successful missions with Blue Origin, with SpaceX and with Virgin Galactic,” Dr. Arian Anderson said. “All of a sudden you have this need for like, ‘Hey, what happens if there is a medical event in space?’ Or ‘Hey, how do we reduce the risk of our customers going to space?’”

So, the University of Colorado — which already exists a mile closer to the stars — wants to prepare the first generation of potential space doctors. 

Starting in fall of 2023, the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora will offer a joint MA-MS program to prepare the first generation of astronauts equipped with a medical degree. 

“One of the things that I think the entire space community is realizing is that the ability to speak both languages between medicine and engineering hasn't necessarily been at the forefront of everyone's minds,” Allie Anderson, an assistant aerospace engineering professor at CU Boulder.

Courtesy of CU Anschutz Medical Campus
University of Colorado students during a simulation exercise at the Mars Desert Research Station in 2019.

The idea for the joint degree has roots in a course designed by the CU School of Medicine that simulated what it's like to tend to patients and survive on a harsh environment like Mars. The course has been funded by a CU System grant that can be used to purchase technology a campus or department cannot afford.

“Human space flight is really unique in the sense that we're taking individuals who are already healthy, and we have engineered an environment that subsequently causes changes to their body and can lead to medical events,” said Allie Anderson, one of the program’s designers. “Or even just the fact that while they're in this extreme environment, they don't have access to traditional medical care.”

The five-year program will take on two to four medical students for its first cohort. 

After completing their medical degrees, students will embark on a one-year masters aerospace engineering. They’ll take classes like the survival simulation and other courses developed by the faculty that combine engineering and medical expertise. 

“These students are going to be building out a trailer that will serve as a medical bay,” Anderson said. “Engineering for human space life is a really highly constrained challenge, both in mass, power and volume, especially when thinking about the kind of medical care that would be required for a Martian habitat module.” 

The team heading the program believe they are launching the first of its kind in the United States. 

While the program is still in its infancy, Dr. Arian Anderson of NASA has high hopes for its future. 

“The future is now,” he said. “I think we really are at the beginning of something really, really special, really, really interesting, and the demand is starting to grow and we are hoping to meet that demand here as we develop this program more and more.”