Published: April 2, 2023 By
Space Medicine
Photo by Daniel Gutierrez-Mendoza

CU Boulder's Current MiSSE Course 

 As the possibility of landing a person on Mars approaches, engineers and scientists are beginning to explore what it means to live and work on Mars. What types of skills would you need to learn, and who would you bring with you? Would you bring an engineer? A geologist? A navigator? Perhaps a doctor? All of these questions are being answered by graduates and undergraduates taking Medicine in Space and Surface Environments or MiSSE, a new course at the University of Colorado Boulder.

 Maintaining astronaut health and safety will be critical for extreme exploration environments, such as the surface of the Moon or Mars. The journey to these surfaces will not be an easy feat and it poses challenges for engineers and medical care providers. At the University of Colorado Boulder, students have the unique opportunity to learn about the medical challenges of human spaceflight in a completely immersive way, by becoming analog astronauts! Analog astronauts are individuals that decided to play the role of an astronaut during a simulated crewed mission on Earth. The simulations have similar constraints and environments that one would see on a space mission and in this case similarities to what life would be like on the surface of Mars.

The MiSSE class has elements of hands-on lectures and field simulations. Students spend the semester leading up to spring break learning about medical care in remote desolate environments from trained professionals and doctors. Then, they immerse themselves in a field simulation where they engage in medical care in a simulated planetary surface environment. The field simulation occurs at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Hanksville, Utah where the students are offered a chance to practice the material that was offered in the in-class lecture portion and learn about alternative considerations and how they might adapt their training. The simulation is designed to test students in a wide variety of scenarios where they must navigate difficult terrain,organize into teams and complete mission tasks all while time constrained. During the sim a student might be put into a position where they need to abort mission tasks and begin helping assist possible injured/ill crewmates.

Luca Bonarrigo, an undergraduate senior BAM student in Aerospace Engineering, took the class last spring. “I was always interested in human spaceflight and the medical innovations that have come from space exploration, so when I first found out about MiSSE, I knew immediately I wanted to take the class. And I'm so glad I did - it's easily one of the best, most eye-opening courses I've taken in my undergraduate years. I gained so many unforgettable experiences, especially during the week spent as an analog astronaut practicing emergency medicine in Hanksville, Utah.” Bonarrigo said.

While the class is offered to both undergraduate and graduate students, everyone who is in the class first has to apply. The class is also not restricted to just engineers, it is open to all students but applications are viewed on a case-by-case basis by the instructing team.  Students may choose to take this class at a lower or upper division section with the distinction being participating in an additional project over the course of the semester.

 During the Spring of 2022, students were tasked with designing and building a payload delivery module that would transport medical supplies by rocket. ​​The system was designed for rapid medical resupply in the event of an emergency on the surface of Mars. 

At the end of the MiSSE course are equipped with Wilderness First Aid and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation training. They are also provided education of value to those who are involved in research on human spaceflight (physiology and medical care) and are exposed to common practice and learning devices employed in the medical community. 

Bonnarrigo says, “Before MiSSE, I knew I wanted to study and work in bioastronautics, but MiSSE helped me discover the area I'm really passionate about - space medicine!”


New MS-MD Space Medicine Joint Program 

Space is no place for humans; it wreaks havoc on our bodies bones, muscles, skin, ears, and eyes. As the space industry prepares for interplanetary travel, astronauts must prepare for the extreme environment awaiting them. Humanity is set to return humans to the Moon soon and our next step will be Mars.  As the industry embarks on these future endeavors we need a team of skilled engineers and physicians to help prepare us for the long journey ahead. 

Space needs doctors, and a new joint program between the CU Boulder Department of Engineering and the University of Colorado School of Medicine is preparing students with the skills needed to advance human spaceflight. This new joint MD-MS program is going to prepare students pursuing a medical degree with the skills and knowledge in the field of bioastronautics. This program was designed by Allie Anderson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at CU Boulder, and Ben Easter, MD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and deputy element scientist for NASA's ExMC part of the Human Research program.

Easter and his colleagues first designed the MiSSE course and this new program is rooted within the MiSSE. This new program will focus on teaching students to speak both the language of medicine and engineering related to the field of human spaceflight. This program is designed to be a five-year curriculum that enhances the traditional four years of medical school with one additional year on the Boulder campus. Students will do the first few years in medical school and then take a year break to complete their Master's in Aerospace Engineering - Bioastronautics and then go back to finish their medical curriculum. The MiSSE course will make an appearance in this joint program during the time students spend at CU Boulder.

A grant was recently awarded to Easter and Anderson called the CU Next Award. They plan to use this grant to improve the technology and equipment at the MDRS and to create new tech-focused courses around medicine and human spaceflight. The first new class will be an elective for first-year medical students to introduce them to the challenges of medical care in extreme environments such as space flight. A new engineering projects course will be a part of the graduate curriculum at CU Boulder which will be an engineering projects course. One project that is currently being discussed is a simulated sick bay to bring on the analog mission at MDRS.

The new program is set to start taking applications in the Fall of 2022 and start its first class in the fall of 2023. The timing for this program could not have come at a better time, as the space industry is truly taking off and getting so much closer to establishing a planetary presence on the Moon again….and soon Mars!