Out of This World

    • December 2, 2009

Robert Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., a Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development alum (2004–2008), fulfilled a lifelong dream when he traveled to outer space in November aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. Satcher and fellow astronauts Mike Foreman, Robert L. Satcher Jr., and Randy Bresnik landed safely in Florida on November 27, after completing a successful mission.

“I’ve been interested in space since I was a kid, and I watched all the Apollo landings on the moon,” he said.

Satcher, a mission specialist, was tasked with helping to install two platforms to the truss of the International Space Station. The platforms hold spare hardware to sustain station operations after NASA retires the space shuttles. In addition, he operated the robotic arm and served as the crew’s medical officer.

The 11-day mission included three spacewalks and returned NASA astronaut Nicole Stott back to earth, after spending more than two months aboard the International Space Station.

Satcher decided to apply to NASA after meeting Scott Parazynski, a former astronaut and physician, during his residency at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2004, NASA selected Satcher and 10 others to join its astronaut class out of nearly 2,000 applicants.

When Satcher received the acceptance call from NASA, he was working in his research lab at Northwestern University, where he’d recently been awarded a Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development scholarship award. He was studying skeletal metastasis on prostate cancer.

Satcher credits the Harold Amos program with helping to start up his lab and providing “longitudinal stability” so that he could continue to focus on his research.

Even more valuable, he says, is “the network of peers and mentors who continually benefit each other long after the funding ends.” In recognition of the value of the program to his career, Satcher took a Harold Amos T-shirt to space with him.

Satcher pursued medicine after receiving a Doctor of Philosophy degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993.

Although he found chemical engineering intellectually stimulating, he says he “missed the people interface and the rewarding feeling you get from knowing you’ve helped someone.”

As a result, Satcher attended Harvard Medical School and completed his residency in orthopedic surgery in 2000 at the age of 35.

He focused on academic medicine because he enjoys both research and clinical practice, noting that, “research is the way things are developed and how the field moves forward.”

Satcher continues his academic medicine career on a part-time basis as a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

A married father of two children, he serves as a Lay Episcopal Minister who visits the sick and shut in members of his church, St. James Episcopal, in Houston.

He has also been involved with the Big Brother for Youth at Risk Counseling Program in the Department of Corrections in San Francisco; served as a tutor for Black Student’s Union Tutorial program at MIT; and volunteered as a supervising adult for a Cub Scout camp in Nashville.

Satcher strongly believes in volunteer service: “If you benefit from something, it’s common sense that you should give back so that the tradition can continue,” he says. “It’s a small way to ensure that programs continue for the next generation, and that the next generation has mentors.”