The diary of a space geek

September 12, 2003

Kevin Fong is immersed in UK efforts to regain a foothold in the space programme. In excerpts from his diary he records the difficulties of balancing extraterrestrial interests with two real jobs.

Friday, September 21 2001, Zero Gravity
I am stuck in the back of a windowless Russian cargo plane which is falling freely out of the Moscow sky. I am wearing a grey, perfectly flammable flight suit, feeling faintly ridiculous. This brief freefall on a parabolic flight is as near as you can get on Earth to the zero gravity experience of an astronaut in orbit. In the world of astronautics this is what passes for "real fun" and since the age of five I have rarely dreamt of anything else.

Sunday, January 13 2002
Lots to do, though I'm not on call. The space stuff started out as a geeky hobby. It used to be eclipsed by the demands of my junior medical career. But recently it has become more like a second job. I have to visit Leicester Space Science Centre twice this week - to give a talk to an industry forum and to do a television interview. There is also a visit to organise to Estec, the European Space Agency's science and technology HQ in Noordwijk in the Netherlands. Until now the UK has had little to do with human space-flight, something I'd like to change.

Thursday, January 17
Cumulative sleep over the past two nights is barely five hours.
Spend the morning watching surgeons dig bullets out of an unfortunate client. Get to King's Cross just in time to grab the 4.30 to Leicester. At the industry forum, I present examples of the latest applications derived from space biotechnology, such as techniques for engineering human tissues for use in transplants. With a bright spotlight on my face, I can't gauge the audience reaction. Just as well probably.

Friday, January 18
Later this century the first human will set foot on Martian soil. This mission should take up to a thousand days and as much as a year of that time will be spent travelling. We need to work out how to protect humans from the hazards of space flight. Weightlessness causes astronauts to suffer significant muscle and bone loss. The best way of simulating this on Earth is to send people to bed. This has spawned bizarre bed-rest experiments in which volunteers are made to lie down and think of Mars for up to three months. It is the data from one of these experiments that, with colleagues at Estec, we are hoping to analyse.

Sunday, January 20
Do a shift in accident and emergency: sore throat, victim of assault, intravenous drug abuser with groin abscess, ruptured cruciate ligament, common cold, sore throatI Get home exhausted. In bed by 1am. Up at 6am.

Monday, January 21
Another trip to Leicester to film a programme for the BBC. Back in London at about 10pm with little time to prepare for my two-day visit to Holland. I'll be taking two researchers to meet Benny Elmann-Larsen, senior physiology researcher at Estec, and will be meeting my collaborator Mike Grocott to get him acquainted with life in the international space programme. The two researchers are Hugh Montgomery and Laurence "Sid" James. Hugh's team at University College London has come across a gene that appears to determine how quickly minerals leach from bones during periods of inactivity.

Tuesday, January 22, Noordwijk, the Netherlands
Meeting with Benny goes well. The day ends with a tour of the facilities, but Hugh and Sid are most impressed with Benny's standard-issue ESA espresso machine.

Wednesday, January 23
Spend the morning with Mike looking at a web-based distance-learning tool that ESA is using. We're hoping to use it as a way round having to fly our ESA and Nasa speakers over to lecture our undergraduates.

Sunday, February 17
One minute the patient in bed five is awake and seemingly stable, the next he is collapsed in a heap with an obstructed airway. We attempt to insert a tube into his windpipe but there is too much swelling around his larynx. Only one option remains. I take a scalpel and begin to cut his throat. It is the stuff of urban legend among medical students - the story of a man in a restaurant, choking on a lump of gristle, whose life is saved by having a Bic Biro stabbed through his throat by a gung-ho junior doctor. If only it were so simple. I am unable to locate the trachea. Just as things start to look hopeless, the surgeon and consultant anaesthetist burst in and save the man's life.

Wednesday, February 20
Prepare for another meeting with the Medical Research Council and British National Space Centre teams on Friday to talk about organising workshops for space physiology.

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 26-
Work from 8am until 1am the next day. Meet with my MRC and BNSC colleagues to discuss the developing plans for the forthcoming workshop. It looks as if I'll be off to Houston in May to prepare Nasa for its role in the workshop. Back to UCL to add the final touches to a revision lecture on space physiology, which I give at midday.

Thursday-Friday, April 18-19
On call for intensive care. Start work at 8.30am with seven patients. By 11am I'm down to five.

Saturday, May 4
The first day of my Padi diving course. I spend the afternoon at the bottom of a pool in Bayswater breathing compressed air. I find it interesting that the human physiological envelope is so narrow but that we as individuals are capable of exhibiting such resilience at its edges. A few dozen metres below the surface of the ocean and the air we breathe rapidly becomes toxic. And yet we more than exist here, we dive here for fun, cheating the physics and stretching our physiology with exotic gas mixtures. Intensive care is much the same. We push, we cheat and we wait for the patients to find the will.

Friday-Saturday, May 10-11
Sometime after midday, every pager in the hospital goes off - "Major Incident Declared". It is the Potters Bar rail crash. Every hospital should have a well-rehearsed plan for such events. It is all that prevents these situations from becoming total catastrophe. The London Ambulance Service is calling for a mobile team to go to the scene, meaning there could be overwhelming casualty numbers and multiple people trapped. In all, there are seven dead and 76 injured.

Monday, May 20, Nasa, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas
I am here as part of a UK delegation to explore possibilities of work with Nasa. For the first time in years we are edging our way back into the space programme.

Friday May 24
Visit Spacehab, a commercial organisation who will put a payload into orbit for you if you chuck them $500,000 or so. As we finish the meeting, the Spacehab representative says: "If there's anything we can do to get you guys into space then let us know." If only.

Kevin Fong is too busy to sleep. At 32, he is not only a junior doctor in a major hospital, which requires long hours and intense work, he is also a physiology lecturer at University College London. And on the side, he dabbles in space research, writes Mandy Garner.

Dabbles is a bit of an understatement: he is chairman of the UK Space Biomedical Research and Education Advisory Committee of the British National Space Centre. In the midst of all this, he has found time to write a diary for a book that aims to give an insight into the working lives of scientists.

Modestly, he says he feels "a bit of a fraud" for being included in the book because research is not his full-time job and he hasn't published anything groundbreaking. "I'm really just an amateur, especially compared with the other diarists," he says.

The diary, which he scribbled on his way to and from work, catalogues a working life lived at full speed and is a study of sleep deprivation. Fong says he is at his most productive when busy, but he adds that balancing his jobs is "pretty tough". His space work is done in his spare time. He once used his annual leave and own money to attend meetings abroad, but now he has some support from a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts fellowship.

He says he is not unique among his colleagues at UCL's Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. All are clinicians with an interest in extreme environment physiology and medicine. Fong hopes to never have to choose between astronautics and medicine, which have been his main fascinations for as long as he can remember. "I am doing my best to try to create a future that might include both," he says. And if that means the odd sleepless night (or week), so be it.

Science, not Art: Ten Scientists' Diaries is published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on September 18, £8.50.


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