Sky is not the limit for NASA veterinarian

Sky is not the limit for NASA veterinarian

While the space shuttle makes its last flight, NASA vet says it will usher in a new era for space travel
Aug 01, 2011

NATIONAL REPORT — As the space shuttle Atlantis blasted out of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its final mission in early July, NASA's chief veterinarian Alex Dunlap says it's not the end of an era, it's the beginning of a new one.

In fact, Dunlap says, the next decade will usher in some exciting times for researchers and veterinarians when it comes to space exploration.

"Companies such as Virgin Galactic, XCor and several others, which will fly suborbital flight profiles and which will primarily cater to space tourists, are also considering flying research flights," he says. "This would give investigators the opportunity to fly investigations which could use research animal models. I foresee a need for veterinary oversight which could include veterinarians as crew members," he says.

And that's perfect for a veterinarian that has rolled his interests in medicine, research, animal welfare and flying into one career.

"NASA is certainly my first love," he says. "It is fantastic working for the space program."

Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and raised in West Memphis, Ark., Dunlap grew up surrounded by animals, even raising chickens and quail. "I thought putting the two interests together—animals and medicine—would make a nice career," he says, adding he earned undergraduate degrees in animal science and domestic animal biology.

While leaning toward veterinary medicine, Dunlap was also interested in medical school and decided to apply—and was accepted—to both. He chose to pursue veterinary medicine first at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine.

Graduating in 1989, Dunlap spent three years working at a mixed-animal practice in Tennessee before deciding to go to medical school.

"I like school, education and learning, and I had an opportunity to go to medical school so I went," he says. "I certainly did not plan on going to both medical and veterinary school."

During medical school at the University of Tennessee, Dunlap continued to moonlight as a veterinarian on weekends and even treated a lot of his classmates' animals. "My veterinary background was very helpful in getting through medical school and continues to help me," he says. "I don't separate the two mentally so it is a fluid thought process for me when thinking about the two disciplines."

It was during his last year of medical school that NASA floated into the picture.

Dunlap applied and was selected to be a crew member for STS-90 (Neurolab), a shuttle flight dedicated to researching how the brain and nervous system function in space.

"Four of us were initially selected, and we knew at that time that two would fly and two would be backups," he says. Dunlap was a first alternate for the flight. "I had hopes of being reassigned to another flight but it just didn't happen."

During the two-year training process, Dunlap spent one year learning how to perform the experiments that would be on the space shuttle. During the second year, he learned how to function and work in the space shuttle and how to operate any onboard systems that he would have had to operate.

"I had always wanted to work for NASA and become an astronaut and was very fortunate to have been given the opportunity that I was given," he says.

STS-90 flew the largest number of animals ever flown in space—more than 90 rodents among approximately 2,000 total living beings, Dunlap says.

Once the flight was finished, Dunlap and the other payload specialists, returned to their day jobs. For him, that meant returning to medical school to complete his residency in family medicine.

"I was involved with four shuttle flights during medical school," Dunlap says. "I had to get permission to take a couple weeks off. The dean said "OK, I'll let you do it one time, but not again," Dunlap remembers. "I did it three more times."