Dr Joan Vernikos – First Lady of NASA

Former NASA Director of Life Sciences Dr Joan Vernikos talks space, rats and Russians.

Image: Gordon Cooper / NASA

"Space is seductive. Everyone wants to be an astronaut."

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There are some moments in history that I really wish I’d been there for. A child of the nineties, I often feel as if all the really important things happened long before I was born. The DNA double helix, IVF treatment, the World Wide Web; all these things came into the world before I did.

But the one that really gets me is the first Moon landing. Every now and then, you hear an event referred to as ‘the moon landing of our generation’, or something similar, but I can’t help but feel that it never quite compares. Take Felix Baumgartner’s leap from space, for instance – incredible feat of engineering, bravery and marketing though it was, it hasn’t had the same cultural impact as a man walking on the moon.

Dr Joan Vernikos

Dr Joan Vernikos

Few things can and will ever come close to such a seminal event in human history. However, when Neil Armstrong dropped onto the lunar surface in 1969, Dr Joan Vernikos found herself very close to it indeed. She was inside NASA when it happened.

“It was fabulous, absolutely fabulous,” she says, grinning like a young girl, not the 80-year-old powerhouse she actually is. “I consider myself having lived the best years of NASA, from practically the beginning.

Practically the beginning is right. NASA came into being in October 1958, and made John Glenn the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth in his Mercury capsule on February 20th, 1962. Two years later, a young Dr Joan was offered the chance to leave her assistant professorship at Ohio State University College of Medicine and join the NASA team in California.

“I was doing stress research at the time, and it happened that the Chair in Physiology was going to head the lab at NASA. He asked me to follow him.”

In that moment, Joan began a 46 year stay at NASA that would eventually take her right to the top.

“I was in California until 1993 when – and this was the only time I ever applied for a job, conceited as it sounds – there was an opening for the Director of Life Sciences for all of NASA in Washington DC.”

“I was perfectly happy doing what I was doing but my husband said ‘if you don’t apply no one will pay any attention to you, no one will ask you again’. So I thought, what the heck, applied and I got it.”

Aerial View of the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field

Aerial View of the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field

I find it hard to believe that anyone could have been better suited to the job than Dr Joan. In her time as a research scientist at sunny Moffett Field where all NASA’s Life Sciences research was originally based, she was at the forefront of our developing knowledge of what happens to a human in space.

Perhaps her most valuable contribution was her pivotal role in pioneering the use of bed rest as an analogue for microgravity. Testing the effects of microgravity on Earth through bed rest – exactly what it sounds like, and, I can confirm, just as dull too – is a staple of space physiology research to this day, and a lasting legacy of Dr Joan’s work.

Of all her many projects over a 40 year research career though, it is her work in the 1970s that piques my interest most.

“We called it the Parts Program.”

It is impossible to talk about the Space Race without also mentioning the Cold War: two superpowers, the USA and the USSR, fighting one another to be the first to do… well, everything really. The concept of collaboration between the two is anathema to common thought, yet this is exactly what was going on.

“My first trip to Russia was in 1974,” she says, adding that she never actually lived in the country. “The Russian scientists approached us because they were sending animals up in a space capsule called Kosmos, and there were all kinds of creatures.

“They said ‘we have a full slate of experiments we are conducting, many scientists are involved, but there may be things left over and you’re welcome to any tissue that’s left over.”

She smiles. “We called it the Parts Program.”

“There were four of us at NASA who were investigators; somebody got a piece of liver, another a muscle, [and] one got eyes.”

For her part, Dr Joan saw an opportunity to build upon the research into stress that she had been pursuing at Ohio State 10 years earlier, and that had got her the position at NASA in the first place.

“I looked at stomach ulcers,” she says. “I thought, we can induce stomach ulcers in a rat with cold, with crowding, so, if space is stressful, then why not space?”

Unfortunately for her – but fortunately for the rat I suppose – they found no evidence that the rats found space in any way stressful. “That was another of my setbacks,” she laughs. “That was the end of that, we never looked at ulcers again.”

Other experiments were more successful. Of all of them, it is the first study to show that bone formation was inhibited in space that she is perhaps most proud of.

“Up to that point, we had measured calcium being excreted from astronauts, and we would still to this day be measuring calcium excreted if we had not done those animal experiments.

“The way it was done, we injected tetracycline (the antibiotic), that marks newly formed bone, both before the flight and after they got back.

“Like bark, you could see the rings of bone that were or were not formed. You could see the animals that had been in flight from the rings that were close to each other, whereas in the controls the rings were further apart. It was so beautiful! So simple, and so beautiful!”

Her enthusiasm is infectious. She loves space, and it shows. But to call her merely a cheerleader for NASA would be uncharitable. As someone who watched NASA grow up from the inside, she knows better than anyone how it changed over the years, and she contends that it wasn’t always for the better.

“Things got… complicated,” she says. “I can’t say they went wrong, but things got more complicated.”

“It was used as a glamour thing. Every new administrator, every politician who became involved with NASA, came in to make changes.”

We used to shake our heads and smile,” she says, doing just that. “In three months, they were seduced, they were standing at the launch with their jaws dropped and whooping. Space is seductive, everyone wants to be an astronaut.”

After an hour with Dr Joan, I’m inclined to believe her. I ask her if it’s too late to change careers: “A late bloomer!” she laughs. It’s not a no.