Defying gravity

January 13, 2020

Keith Ruskin is a truly interdisciplinary researcher at the University of Chicago. In addition to being a professor of anesthesia and critical care with UChicago Medicine, he also has a deep interest in aerospace medicine as it relates to human performance. However, Ruskin’s biggest claim to fame is that he is most likely the only person on campus who has experienced microgravity.

Ruskin is a commercial pilot who has been flying for 22 years. He’s also a member of the Aerospace Medical Association, which is the largest membership organization in the fields of aerospace medicine and human performance. As chair of the Aerospace Human Performance Committee, he helps develop guidelines related to the health, safety, and performance of people involved in air and space travel. Ruskin is currently working on several projects related to aerospace medicine and extreme environments. One organization, known as Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere), is a citizen scientist astronaut training program designed to teach candidates how to perform effective suborbital science missions, serve as project educators, and conduct in-flight research. Ruskin recently flew on a mission with a goal of helping to develop flight suits designed for safe and optimal performance in microgravity.

"A number of companies, such as Virgin Galactic, will soon be taking people into space on commercial suborbital flights," Ruskin explained. "They’re working with researchers right now to determine how to train people to be crew members on these flights."

Ruskin’s microgravity training began in October 2019 when he completed a Project PoSSUM bioastronautics course in Canada. One component of the course was a microgravity research flight where a number of scientists, including Ruskin, tested a new space suit prototype. The team was transported in a modified Falcon 20 aircraft that flew a “parabolic flight” profile. This flight involved a steep climb that initially subjected the crew members to twice the force of gravity (2G). The aircraft then transitioned to simulated microgravity for about 30 seconds. This series of maneuvers was repeated multiple times in order for the scientists to learn how to adjust to the microgravity environment and also evaluate the overall performance of the space suit.

"Aerospace medicine is fascinating because we use physiology to put healthy people in lethal environments," Ruskin said. "The microgravity flights are exhilarating. During the 2G pull-up, it’s a little hard to breathe and it’s hard to move around. During the microgravity portion, your body doesn’t sense a 'down.' Plus, my fellow scientists and I were conducting research and collecting data throughout the flight. I really enjoyed playing a small part in the development of our understanding of microgravity."

Ruskin plans to attend a second training session in April, which will involve classroom training, aerobatic flight, and exposure to simulated high altitude in a pressure chamber. He hopes to have an opportunity to work as a scientific crew member on a future suborbital flight and contribute to other research projects involving aerospace medicine.

Ruskin's experience with microgravity is also making its way into UChicago classrooms. During the Spring Quarter, he’s co-teaching an undergraduate course on extreme physiology with his wife, Anna Clebone Ruskin, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care, and Alfredo Garcia, an assistant professor of medicine in emergency medicine. The course, which Ruskin designed, focuses on understanding how the human body reacts to stressors such as microgravity, high altitude, diving, spaceflight, isolation, and more.

"It's a totally different way of looking at physiology," Ruskin said. "And it’s practical. How can we help people adapt to environments in which they must work and live? As we begin efforts to return to the moon and to explore Mars, we will have to answer questions about long-term exposure to microgravity and radiation, as well as isolation. I also have an aerospace medicine clinic in which I do flight physicals for pilots. Even commercial airline flights require that passengers make physiologic adaptations. The cabin is pressurized, but only to the equivalent of 6,000 to 8,000 feet. Even though you may be flying from Chicago to New York, your body thinks it’s in Aspen, Colorado while you’re in the air."

When Ruskin’s not working at UChicago or doing research, he can likely be found flying his own airplane, which he keeps at Chicago Executive Airport.

"It’s a Cessna Skylane, a classic single-engine, general aviation airplane. It’s very docile, forgiving, and easy to fly," Ruskin said. "It’s a real gentleman’s plane. It won’t take me to space, but it flies fast enough."