The Unconventional Optometrist: Optometry in NASA Space Medicine

I am a big proponent of space exploration and I’ve always been interested in astronomy and everything you see in sci-fi movies.  If I could, I would be an astronaut myself, but the closest I ever got was getting a telescope at age 9 and joining my alma mater’s Space Society.  So, it was no wonder how surprised I was when I learned that optometrists can be involved in space exploration too.

Now, not everyone can be an optometrist and an astronaut like Dr. Lawrence DeLucas – as cool as it may be –  but you could follow the footsteps of Dr. C. Robert Gibson or Dr. Keith Manuel and become a NASA Space Medicine consultant working in their optometry clinic at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.

Recent studies have shown that astronauts who have gone on long-duration flight missions are more prone to vision problems [source], including early onset of cataracts as a result of microgravity and long-term exposure to heavy-ion and UV radiation in space [source].  As a result, NASA recruits the help of optometrists to assess NASA astronauts and to aid in the development of new innovations that can be used to mitigate vision problems associated with space travel.  An example is the NASA approved adjustable glasses called Superfocus that will be worn by astronauts on future missions and on the International Space Station.

So, how do you become an optometrist with NASA?  There are many possible ways you could go about this but I’m going to mention two options:

The first is to work for NASA as a civilian.  The process is a lot more straight forward since you only need to apply to NASA directly.  An optometrist would fall under the “Professional, Engineering and Scientific” occupational grouping in NASA, which is the bulk of NASA’s positions (you can check NASAJobs  for a breakdown of their other occupational groupings).

The second is to graduate from the Aerospace Optometry (AsO) program offered by the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute in Pensacola, FL and work for NASA as an optometrist in uniform.  Aerospace optometrists undergo aeronautical and aeromedical training to develop skills needed to treat pilots whether in the military or at NASA.  The program consists of three phases: Aviation Preflight Indoctrination, Primary Flight School, and Didactics and Clinicals, which provides training in areas such as Environmental Physiology and Naval Aviation Medicine, to name a few.  This option would be ideal for those who wish to serve and to have the opportunity to travel and practice around the world.

So, if you would like to make a contribution to NASA space programs then perhaps becoming a NASA optometrist will be an interest to you!

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