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Astronaut Offers a Veterinarian's Perspective from Space

He's traveled hundreds of miles above the Earth's surface, logged dozens of hours on space walks, and touched the Hubble Space Telescope. Plus, he's a veterinarian.

Dr. Richard Linnehan, whose career included stints at the Baltimore Zoo and the Naval Ocean Systems Center before joining NASA, visited the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine on Friday, March 1, to share his experiences as a veterinarian in space with first- and second-year students. These students, along with others in the college, listened with interest to Linnehan's story.

Dr. Richard Linnehan

Dr. Richard Linnehan visited the college on March 1 to share his experiences as a veterinarian in space.

"Growing up, I always wanted to be a pilot and a veterinarian," said Linnehan, who was born the year Sputnik launched and who was 12 years old during Apollo 11's trip to the moon.

He began his presentation with a short time-lapse video of Earth from the International Space Station, which he visited in 2008, and covered topics as diverse as the difficulties of sleeping in space, the recent meteorite hit in Russia, and the important role of veterinarians in the future of space travel. He also showed images from space, some of which he took, of the pyramids of Giza, the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, the Galapagos Islands, and bodies of water around New Orleans, among others.

The students and faculty in attendance appreciated the chance to hear from a veterinarian-turned-astronaut. Earlier in the day, Linnehan also gave the keynote address at the Virginia Veterinary Conference in Roanoke before making the stop in Blacksburg.

"I thought it was fantastic because I've always wanted to go into space and he's made it happen," said Stephanie Apple of Manassas, Va., a second-year veterinary student.

Linnehan devoted much of his presentation to the "one health" initiative and the importance of veterinary medicine in solving the world's problems. "I think he did a really good job explaining that veterinarians can do more than just small animal medicine," Apple added.

From private practice, to exotic veterinary medicine, to military veterinary medicine, to life science research in a microgravity setting, Linnehan's long and illustrious career has touched many sides of veterinary medicine.

Linnehan earned his doctor of veterinary medicine at The Ohio State University in 1985. One of his classmates, Dr. Stephen Smith, professor of aquatic, wildlife, and exotic animal medicine in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, was responsible for his visit to the college.

Drs. Schurig, Linnehan, and Smith

Left to right: Dean Gerhardt Schurig, Dr. Richard Linnehan, and Dr. Stephen Smith

After earning his veterinary degree and entering private practice, Linnehan decided to pursue a joint two-year internship at the Baltimore Zoo and Johns Hopkins University, where he studied zoo animal medicine and comparative pathology. "Veterinary medicine is about a lot more than large animals, small animals, and research," he said. "You've got to be a jack of all trades, you've got to be into everything, and you've got to put it all together."

In 1989, Linnehan was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps and served at the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego, Calif., as chief clinical veterinarian for the U.S. Navy's Marine Mammal Program. There, he oversaw the U.S. Navy's veterinary programs for whales, dolphins, and seals.

In 1992, Linnehan turned his attention from the depths of the sea to the stars. He applied for and was accepted into NASA's astronaut candidate training program that year.

"Training is an arduous process," said Linnehan, who showed images of his underwater training in a spacesuit at a NASA facility. "For every hour in space, you probably spend about 10 hours in the pool."

Four years later, Linnehan got his first gig aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. The 17-day flight was not only the longest space shuttle mission at the time, but also the first to combine a full schedule of microgravity studies and a comprehensive life sciences payload.

"Just like in veterinary medicine, you are trained extensively, and once you are in space, your training kicks in," he said.

Linnehan took two other trips aboard Columbia, conducting experiments on the effects of microgravity on the nervous system in 1998 and helping upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002. He was also part of the crew that delivered new components to the International Space Station during a fourth space flight on board the Endeavour.

Linnehan is not the only astronaut with a background in veterinary medicine. NASA has sent several veterinarians who are the only professionals trained in cross-species medicine into space. Although none of these have been alums of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, if the enthusiasm surrounding Linnehan's visit on Friday is any indicator, it may not be too long before one of the college's own reaches for the stars.