Aiming High, Higher, Highest: Resident Physician Heads into Space

Medical practice can lead to any number of unexpected places and situations, but it’s rare that those include space. For a resident physician recruited to NASA’s newest class of prospective astronauts, space is the latest shake-up in a nonconformist life marked by extraordinary achievements.

Jonny Kim, M.D., and prospective astronaut, at the Charles Hayden Planetarium, Boston

Jonny Kim, M.D., and prospective astronaut, at the Charles Hayden Planetarium, Boston. Photo by Josh Rosenfeld

Jonny Kim, M.D., is currently beginning his two-year astronaut training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He is among 12 astronaut candidates selected this year by NASA from 18,300 applicants. Dr. Kim’s story starts in Los Angeles. After high school, he enlisted in the Navy, and as a SEAL during the Iraq War took part in more than 100 combat operations. His honors include a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Combat “V”, and the 2006 Special Operations Medical Association Naval Special Warfare Medic of the Year. Subsequently, Kim returned to school, picking up degrees in mathematics (University of San Diego, summa cum laude) and medicine (Harvard Medical School). Until last month, Dr. Kim was a resident in emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Vital Signs caught up with him in June.

What makes a doctor go to space?

I’ve always had this intrinsic desire to make a positive contribution to this world and positively affect people’s lives on a large scale, and doing that in medicine was a passionate endeavor. My interest in space is related to that. I believe in pushing that frontier into the unknown and exploring where no humans have gone before. Crossing those barriers and hurdles, with technology that hasn’t yet been invented, benefits everyone. But what’s most important for me is the opportunity to inspire our children to dream big, to want to invent and innovate. It’s about building a better future for everyone.

Why did you go into medicine following your Navy service?

Being a doctor was not particularly my dream as a kid. In Iraq I was supporting missions, primarily as a special operator, and if anyone was injured in my team or coalition, or even the enemy, it was my responsibility to provide medical care. As a combat medic, I trained pretty extensively in first-line trauma care. I credit the phenomenal surgeons and doctors saving lives in that very stressful environment. The compassion you’re able to give on a battlefield is what inspired me to want to seek a profession that helps other people full-time.

What will you learn in astronaut school?

The first two years I’m going to be learning Russian, how to pilot an aircraft, how to do spacewalks, and various aspects of the International Space Station. When that training is complete and you’re waiting for an assignment, astronauts are supporting active missions, as well as participating in research opportunities around the globe.

You’re doing an amazing job checking off items on your bucket list. Are you concerned that you’ll run out of things to do by, say, 50?

I’ve always followed my passion and my heart. I certainly did not prescribe these events in my life and have it all figured out. I’ve been blessed to have a calling in these various fields and I’m very excited about life and the unknown in science. I’m pretty optimistic that I won’t run out of exciting and fun things to do.

If you could choose your space mission, where would you go?

My favorite planet is certainly Earth, and I would be happy going anywhere in space. If I had to choose, a mission to Mars is very exciting to me, the next frontier. Seeking the solutions for that journey will yield a lot of technological benefits to humanity. One of the biggest challenges is the effects on human physiology of a long-duration space mission.

From your vantage point of almost-in-space, what would you say to your younger self?

I did not dream of being an astronaut as a kid. I didn’t have many dreams growing up. Childhood was kind of rough for me. But I would tell my younger self to embrace failure and the lessons you can learn, follow your dreams, maintain that curiosity in the sciences and the unknown, love yourself and love the people around you, and enjoy the ride and the adventure. And never give up.

Which is the better movie: The Martian or Interstellar?

I’m a bigger fan of The Martian. It’s a classic underdog story of someone who perseveres against all odds, embraces failure, and learns from the mistakes they’ve made. That certainly strikes a strong chord with me.


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