Hey, How About Starship Earth?


By KIM BELLARD

I missed the job announcement on the company website.  I missed it again when the company posted the job on Linkedin.  I missed it when Eric Ralph tweeted that the posting was “probably the coolest job posting I’ve read in years.”  Fortunately, though, I follow Isaac Kohne (MD, PhD), and I did see his tweet:

Yes, I’m talking about SpaceX.  Yes, the job is for a “Starship Medical Engineer.”  Yes, it’s to help SpaceX’s mission to Mars, whenever that might be.  Who knows, the job might even entail going to Mars, although that’s not spelled out. 

I am not, of course, remotely qualified for such a job.  In fact, I don’t even know anyone who might be.  But I agree with Mr. Ralph that it’s probably the coolest job posting I’ve seen in years, maybe ever.  And I even more agree with Dr. Kohne: it could be an “opportunity to rethink a bigger broken system.”

Hint: I don’t think he’s talking about just the SpaceX mission. 

SpaceX is looking for a physician – M.D. or D.O. – who also has a Masters of Engineering and experience with aerospace medicine.  I imagine that substantially cuts down on the candidate pool.  The list of responsibilities are pretty daunting:

  • Serve as a point of contact for customers with relevant SpaceX stakeholders for medical development initiatives
  • Work across teams to design, integrate, and implement a medical system of the future
  • Support research including health data collection before, during, and after human spaceflight missions focusing on effects of long-duration spaceflight within the context of a widening range of passenger health issues
  • Serve as the aerospace medicine technical expert for human spaceflight activities
  • Develop and coordinate space medicine flight operations with technical, operations, and programmatic parties
  • Provide medical support during flight operations and development as a console operator

In short, “As a Starship medical engineer, you will be responsible for developing the medical system for Starship.” 

In one way, SpaceX has it easy: it’s all going to be new.  The world has now had over sixty years of aerospace engineering, ever since we started trying to send people into space.  We’ve sent men (yes, only men) to the Moon, we’ve had people circle in earth for months at a time, and we’ve made sending astronauts into orbit almost routine, with multiple countries and even a few private companies doing so or preparing to do so (e.g., Blue Origin, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic). 

But no one has sent anyone to Mars.  It’s been just shy of fifty years since we’ve sent anyone to the Moon.  The moon is a little over 200,000 miles from earth; the closest Mars ever gets to earth is over 30 million miles, and it can be over 200 million miles away.  The trip will take over seven months just to get to Mars. 

The Mars trip is quantitatively and qualitatively much different than anything we’ve ever tried before. 

As you can imagine, if someone gets sick or injured, there’s no calling 911.  There’s no local hospital.  There’s no corner drugstore.  You can’t airflight anyone home.  As the mission proceeds, it becomes far enough away that the speed of light limits the ability to even communicate with Earth in a timely way.  Whatever expertise and equipment the crew comes with is all they’ll have in order to deal with whatever happens to them. 

That’s why SpaceX wants a Starship medical engineer.  Not a job for the faint of heart.  The Starship medical engineer may build on existing solutions, but extending them to a Mars mission requires innovative thinking and de novo approaches.

Starship Earth has a similar problem.  UFO’s (or UAPs, as they are now referred to) aside, we’re all on our own here.  There are no comparable planets, and no source of expertise anywhere else.  If we screw things up here, we’re out of luck (which is one reason Elon Musk is keen to get to Mars).

And, let’s face it, we’re screwing things up here.  COVID-19 showed us that we’re still vulnerable to pathogens.  Climate change may make large parts of the world uninhabitable within a century.  Microplastics have infiltrated virtually everywhere, including inside us, with yet-to-be-determined impacts on our food chain and our health.  Bioweapons, nuclear weapons, and cyberweapons each could destroy us, each in their own way. 

Unlike SpaceX, we’ve got our medical expertise and facilities (well, many of us, anyway).  We have lots of trained health care professionals, lots of health care offices and facilities, and more prescription drugs and medical devices than we know what to do with.  Yet in many countries, the U.S. included, life expectancy was falling even before the pandemic.  We’re living more of our lives with chronic diseases, with too many of us spending our last years needing significant care.  We have plenty of health care, but not enough good health.

It’s as if we planned for a short trip to the Moon and unexpectedly found ourselves on the way to Mars.  We don’t have the resources, and particularly not the healthcare system, that we need to make the trip. 

Starship Earth needs a Starship Medical Engineer.

Just look at how the pandemic forced us to discover anew the potential of telehealth, and how we’re still fumbling to incorporate it.  We’re pouring money into “digital health,” without really figuring out how “digital health” becomes just part of “health.”  Our healthcare system is largely separate from our public health system(s), and both are largely separate from our environmental health “system(s).”  We can’t even really integrate medical, dental, vision and hearing within the healthcare system. 

Who is inventing not just the medical system of the future but the health system of the future – not just care but lifestyle and environment?   Who’s doing the research, who’s coordinating with the various domain experts, who’s overseeing putting new practices into operation?  Who’s lobbying to not just get more funding for existing entities but for developing truly de novo ideas for the 21st century? 

SpaceX will find someone for its Starship Medical Engineer, and he/she/they will do some cool stuff.  Starship Earth, I’m not so sure about. 

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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