The Right Stuff
As medical director for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the Wallop Flight Facility, Terrence Bidnick, M.D., M.P.H. '87, works with the world's largest collection of scientists, engineers, and technicians. Their collective mission is to create spacecraft, instruments, and new technology for studying the earth, sun, solar system, and universe. To outsiders, some parts of his job may seem routine—overseeing clinics and fitness centers, investigating health risks, seeing patients—but to Bidnick nothing feels routine, because he's contributing to an organization that contributes so much to the world. "You could look at NASA as a set of doctors for the earth," he says. "It does everything from monitoring the effects of global warming to tracking storms and drought. NASA is doing unbelievable things in trying to help monitor and manage the health of the earth—and of course the health of the human race is dependent on the health of the earth."
Bidnick loves his job because:
- The people who work here are highly motivated and highly educated, so they don't play games.
- Goddard Space Center has the largest collection of scientists and engineers in the world. I see patients who've won the Nobel prize, who've managed the Hubble space telescope. The things they think about are just fascinating.
- Discussing things like health risks, exercise, and diet with Goddard's scientists is a pure joy. Generally when they get a disease, within a week they know more about it than I do.
- NASA has an in-depth astronaut health program and maintains a detailed database on anyone who's been in space or even trained to go in space. When astronauts or former astronauts come here, I often get to see them as a physician, and I add to that database.
- I get to practice true occupational medicine, which involves all the tools and skills I learned at Michigan—and I get to do it with some of the smartest people on the planet. For this part of my job, the tools I acquired while getting my master's in public health are much more appropriate than the tools I acquired in medical school.
- Because NASA does things which aren't done elsewhere, I get to investigate especially challenging scientific issues—like unknown toxins—and draw on highly scientific data.
- We have numerous people here who are in their eighties. They may retire, but through emeritus status they remain deeply involved in projects. So geriatrics is part of my job.
- I have stood under a space shuttle and reached up and touched it. I have stood on the launch tower at Kennedy Space Center and looked down—and that's pretty neat.
- Goddard is a communications center, so transmissions from space come through here. It's my job to make sure the people who manage those communications stay well so that no matter what's going on in the world—an extreme snowstorm, a flu pandemic, an earthquake—they can keep communicating.
- When NASA retired the shuttle fleet, they put the last shuttle on the back of a jumbo jet and buzzed it low over Goddard a couple of times. All the employees stood outside waving their hats and cheering. It was pretty neat stuff.