EVMS grad helps astronauts sleep their way to Mars

His work might even reduce the cost of space travel

Douglas Talk, MD (MD ’10), loves the world of science fiction almost as much as the field of medicine. Now he gets to combine the two.

Douglas Talk, MD
Douglas Talk, MD (MD '10)

In addition to his position as an OB-GYN physician at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California, Dr. Talk serves as a medical consultant for SpaceWorks, a private aerospace engineering company. His role? Help find a way to put astronauts to sleep as they travel through space.

Dr. Talk describes it as a medical solution to an engineering problem. “If you can take a crew and make them metabolically inactive,” he says, “the space-capsule design can be smaller and lighter, and the amount of consumables a crew needs would be reduced. And all of this also lowers cost.”

Their studies have shown that this induced torpor could cut the size and power of the spacecraft needed for a mission to Mars by 55 percent. Hospitals often use the technique, also known as target temperature management, to slow metabolic processes and stop tissue damage that occurs after cardiac arrest or brain injury. Dr. Talk says that since humans are not meant to operate in zero gravity, the torpor also could prevent common health complications in space like bone-density loss.

Before he became fascinated by space, Dr. Talk wanted to be a marine biologist. But with a paramedic for a mom, he developed an interest in medicine. What drew him to EVMS was the focus on patient interaction.

“I think it’s one of the most important — and hardest — skills that a doctor has to learn,” Dr. Talk says. “A problem we have in medicine is the ‘Google search’ — a patient provides us with a basic list of symptoms, and we say, ‘Here’s your problem, and here’s your medication.’ But if you actually talk to patients and listen to them, you find there’s something more going on. And that’s how you go from treating a symptom to treating a patient.”

In his spare time, Dr. Talk goes camping with his three boys. He also likes to draw, and he volunteers with his church. And, of course, there’s his love of science fiction.

“The SpaceWorks project allows me to embrace something about my job that I love, which is medicine, as well as this boyish ideal of the sci-fi world of space travel. I’m combining them into something that may benefit us going forward.”