Why SF? — An Interview with Dr. Robert Satcher, Physician and former NASA Astronaut

Photo Credit: NASA

Underwords is honored to present the next edition of “Why SF?” featuring Dr. Robert “Bobby” Satcher, Jr.

Dr. Satcher is a physician, chemical engineer, and former NASA astronaut. He was a crewmember of the STS-129 space mission, which launched out of Cape Canaveral on November 16, 2009, logging more than 259 hours in space.

Dr. Satcher received his PhD in chemical engineering from MIT and his MD from the Harvard Medical School. In addition, he has also been awarded honors for his work as a surgeon and as an engineer. He is married with two children.


Erin: You had a career that most people only dream about. Did you always want to be an astronaut or doctor? What inspired you to these career choices?

Dr. Satcher: I always wanted to have a career where I was using math and science. I always liked those subjects in school, in my early days in school. I also liked experimenting and tinkering. So, that put in my mind that I wanted to be doing something that would give me the opportunity to ask questions in laboratories as well as doing hands-on things. That was always in my mind.

I didn’t know exactly what my career would be. In fact, when I started college, I majored in chemical engineering, thinking that that was going to be my career, but what evolved in college was work related to medical problems and questions. I also enjoy thinking about medical problems, and I really got interested in the whole concept of surgery and perhaps one day being able to do that. I encountered and met some surgeons, being up at MIT and Harvard. It was always surgery that fascinated me the most. That was, coming out of college, what I thought I’d be doing. I, of course, went to medical school.

I also had the opportunity to meet Ron McNair during my later years at MIT and grew up in a generation in which Hollywood was fascinated with space. We had Star Wars, Star Trek, and a whole other plethora of movies, which came out that were focused on space–which fired the imagination. That’s the initial thing that got me to thinking about the possibilities of being an astronaut. Back then I never really thought that I’d have the opportunity to do it. I just thought it was something beyond what I would be able to do, and so I focused on medical school.

Eventually, I wound up going out to the west coast for my residency at UC San Francisco and being involved with research looking at what happens to the musculoskeletal system in reduced gravity environments. It was really through that that I finally met some physician astronauts. That really was the final thing that helped me to go on and decide to try to be an astronaut.

Erin: That is an incredible journey. We’ve all imagined what it must be like to be in space. We’ve watched the Star Wars movies and we’ve read about space in fiction, but you have actually been there. How did the reality of being in space differ from your expectations or from the experience that is usually depicted in films, television or fiction?

Photo Credit: NASA

Dr. Satcher: It exceeded my expectations. I knew it was going to be a fantastic experience, and basically before you go, you’re relying on the stories from people who have already gone. We spend anywhere from two to four years training for a mission, and all crews that go are a mixture of people who have already gone and some first time flyers. You basically get to know each other very well. You get the reflections, the experiences, and the insights from the people who have gone before. That really shapes your expectations leading up to your flight. Nothing really reproduces it in any of the training that you go through. It is a unique experience. As I said, for me it exceeded my expectations.

Image Credit: NASA

It was much more fantastic than I thought it would be. The whole time you are up there it’s just…you’re discovering this whole new world with no gravity and adapting to that. Also, just the views are spectacular, looking down at the home planet, looking off into deep space. The whole thing is really an amazing experience. Up until now, there have been a little more than 500 people who have had the privilege of going into space and that number is only going to increase as time marches on. I think the more people who are able to experience it the better.

Erin: If I could do it, I would be up there. It sounds like you really do live a science fiction life–especially with your time in space and some of the medical advances that are now in place. How has science fiction enriched your life and/or your career? Do you ever feel like you’re living in a world designed by Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury? 

Dr. Satcher: I never really thought about it that way. I think science fiction has been wonderful in the sense of laying out possibilities and some of those possibilities have actually been realized. People imagined certain things that we have initially done–like building a space station. I can’t tell you the author who did it, but I know this was something in science fiction literature a long time before it got realized.

The same thing is true with the space shuttle, which is a fairly radical concept for a spaceship, being that it acts as both a spaceship and as a glider once it gets back into Earth’s atmosphere.

There are other things that we’ve seen, like when you go back and look at Star Trek and some of the devices that they used–like the tricorder. There are certain companies that are trying to develop something like that now. And then there are the communicators, which look remarkably like cell phones that we’re using.

Erin: They really do. I would love it if you could develop a teleportation system. That would be fantastic.

Dr. Satcher: Yeah. I’d love to see that developed too. It would be great. One day it will happen. It just points out that imagination, of being able to come up with these concepts and it’s science fiction that at least creates the visual for us before we can have the real thing, is an essential part of the whole journey. It really captures the creativity and innovation before the science can actually catch up to it.

Erin: So, what was your favorite moment as an astronaut or as a doctor? What will you never forget from all of your experiences that you’ve had so far?

Photo Credit: NASA

Dr. Satcher: Well, the whole experience from take off to landing is…I’ll never forget the whole experience, but the obvious things are take off because that is so dynamic. You’re sitting on a rocket, and it’s all about the power of the rocket and the incredible speed that is unlike anything else. I also had the opportunity to do two space walks. Going out on those space walks was just extraordinary.

Erin: For many people you are a role model, but who was it that inspired you? Who were some of your role models that encouraged you to reach beyond what you might normally have otherwise accomplished?

Dr. Satcher: The people who had the biggest influence on me were my parents and family members who encouraged me every step of the way and basically let me know that they thought I could do all of these things a long time before I heard that from others. They were the most important people for me. Then, of course, I had a whole slew of role models throughout college, even going back to high school and elementary school, but certainly more recently college and grad school and professional training. For being an astronaut, Ron McNair sticks out, Charlie Bolden, and another guy Leland Melvin who was one of my crewmates and who was one of the first astronauts that I met when I was applying to become an astronaut. Then there are a whole lot of people who I haven’t named.

Erin: It’s impossible to name everybody, I’m sure.

Dr. Satcher: It really is. I haven’t even gotten to the people who were important to me going to medical school and in becoming a doctor and all of the research that I was interested in doing.

Erin: What were some of the biggest obstacles that you faced growing up or in pursuing your career? How did you overcome those?

Dr. Satcher: I think the obstacles are both external and internal as they are with everyone. Not everybody sees the potential that is there. Some people just see your exterior. I’m African American and I’ve had some teachers who, I can remember distinctively some of the teachers back in high school when I was applying to go to MIT, who thought I was crazy for doing that and in so many words let me know. Of course, I remember the ones who encouraged me, remembering both the positive and the negative.

Photo Credit: NASA

Also, as you’re going every step of the way, you always have doubts about yourself whether or not you’re going to be able to actually do what you set out for yourself. Have you set the bar too high? Are you really able to do that? We all have those questions. The whole thing is a process. I think the important thing is (and I always tell this to young folks who are asking, “What should I do?”) assembling a set of role models that works for you.  That takes some effort. Not everybody out there who you know or who might be easily available is the right role model for you. Also, don’t put all of your eggs in just one basket that way. You got multiple role models. There are people who are important to be there for you in educational developments, but also for you developing as a person because it all works together.

Erin: It’s important to have people to ground you as well as to inspire you. I’m guessing that a man who ends up working in outer space and becomes an astronaut must enjoy science fiction, either reading it or watching it. How much of an effect did science fiction have on inspiring you to choose MIT, or how did it enhance what you were already doing once you were in your career or educational path?

Dr. Satcher: Science fiction was huge. It definitely had [an effect] since we had all of these great movies in high school and junior high school. I also remember, although it wasn’t science fiction, the whole Apollo missions and the astronauts scampering across the moon. If you remember those moon images, I was about age five or so when it happened. The thing that really sealed the deal was when Hollywood got ahold of all of this and put it on the big screen. That really fired the imagination.

You could see what the possibilities were and wanting to actually be a part of that really brought it home for me even though I didn’t fully realize that until later on in life. It had a very large effect on my outlook. So, science fiction, again, was very instrumental in me realizing that I really wanted to be involved with space exploration in some way, shape, fashion or form.

Photo Credit: NASA

My favorite movie still of all time is the Star Wars series, at least the first ones. The later ones were just kind of okay, and I know a lot of fans who liked them. Then there’s the Star Trek movies, even though I liked the Star Trek series too, the first few Star Trek movies were fantastic. Then, of course, 2001 and 2010 were a couple of my favorite books and movies.

Erin: They were terrific. Many early science fiction writers wrote about future worlds, which now seem ordinary to us because our scientific advances. For today’s children, who might be dreaming about things that seem like they’re straight our of a science fiction novel, what advice can you give them to turn those dreams into reality?

Dr. Satcher: Pick something that you’re really interested in, and you really have to spend the time and effort going after it. I think there are a lot of distractions nowadays, and I see that with a lot of the students that I deal with. They’re sort of focused on an end goal and neglecting the importance of the process. They’re looking for the big payoff, the big discovery, the fame and the fortune, and everything that goes with it and not staying focused enough on the process.

Erin: Right. They need to put the time in, in order to get the reward out.

Dr. Satcher: They have to put the time in. There have been some very well publicized books, most recently the biography of Steve Jobs and in that book, and he’s not the first one to talk about this, there are lots of people who have talked about this, the amount of time that it takes to focus on the work. That’s just something you have to do. It’s not glamorous. When you’re doing it, the cameras won’t be on you. It’s just something you have to do, if you want to get to those things that make a difference. So, I think the emphasis really has to be put back on [the work]. Whenever I talk to young people, that’s what I tell them to do.

Erin: It sounds like a good plan to me. Dr. Satcher, thank you so much for doing this interview for “Why SF?” You are truly an inspiration, and I appreciate your time.

Dr. Satcher: Thank you so much.

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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