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Behind the ScenesMeet the People

John Charles is a lead project scientist for the Space and Life Sciences Directorate at Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas.

John Charles,
Johnson Space Center,
Houston, Texas

John Charles has spent a career dedicated to realizing the potential of space exploration and helping people to travel in space safely

June 2002 - As a child, John Charles dreamed of being an astronaut and exploring space. Like many other children of the 1960s, he avidly followed the "space race," especially John Glenn's journey into space. Although he never became an astronaut, he has fulfilled his dream in other ways. From investigating crew health and supporting research on the Russian Space Station Mir to training John Glenn for a return trip to orbit and overseeing the upcoming STS-107 science mission, Charles has worked to discover and solve the challenges that will arise as humans take the next step into space.

Says Charles, "At about age 10, I decided to quit dreaming and actually focus on a career in the space business." Charles was interested in physics but knew that he was not strong enough in math to be successful in that course of study. He also had an interest in biology, especially physiology, and realized that a career as a research physiologist could combine with his desire to do space-related work. To that end, he obtained a bachelor's degree in biophysics from Ohio State University in 1977 and a Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics from the University of Kentucky in 1983. Charles arrived at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, in 1983 as a postdoctoral fellow in the medical research branch. He was hired as a full-time employee in the cardiovascular laboratory in 1985.

Several years later, he became the director of that lab. Charles spent a large part of his lab career at JSC looking at the problem of orthostatic intolerance, the feeling of faintness that astronauts experience on their return to Earth from orbit. The condition is caused by insufficient blood pressure in the brain resulting from the body.s inability to adjust blood pressure after adapting to reduced gravity. Charles. team helped to formalize a postflight test of orthostatic function and developed the lower body negative pressure (LBNP) technique to pull fluids out of the upper body and back into the lower body.

Charles left the cardiovascular lab in 1994 when he joined the shuttle/Mir program, which encompassed a series of 11 U.S. space shuttle missions to the Russian space station. He worked as a deputy to Peggy Whitson, the project scientist for the program, and took over her position when she was selected for the astronaut corps. After his tour with the shuttle/Mir program, Charles was assigned to be the liaison between the Human Space Life Sciences Programs Office (now the Office of Bioastronautics) and the Mars Exploration Planning Office at JSC. He also became the lead for the Bioastronautics Critical Path Roadmap Project. Charles notes that this project, a collaborative effort with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute that was conceived in 1997, was originally designed to target physiological problems that need to be solved to make a crewed mission to Mars possible.

"The critical path roadmap is currently focused on the problems of the space station," says Charles, "and I view that as also providing a very strong foundation for any subsequent decision to move beyond low Earth orbit. Many of the problems that would confront humans going to Mars are the same problems we would have on any long-duration space station mission. It's really not apples and oranges; it's really one size apple versus a different size apple."

In addition to his planning work for NASA, Charles has continued to contribute to the success of the shuttle program. He served as project scientist for the experiments that John Glenn conducted during the flight of STS-95 in1998 and is the mission scientist for STS-107. He defines his role as mission scientist as "being an advocate for the mission experiments that come through the Office of Biological and Physical Research." He believes that his years of lab work at JSC provided him with a greater capacity for representing the scientists in dealing with program offices, mission planners, and management: "I.d like to make sure that the people who are actually answering the questions are not forgotten in the big bureaucratic shuffle that seems to surround huge programs like the space shuttle or the space station."

Charles describes a high point of his career with NASA: "I have to rate as one of the highest the chance to work with John Glenn, because he inspired me way back in 1962 to be interested in spaceflight. Then 36 years later, when he flew on the shuttle, I dealt with him on a fairly regular basis to prepare our experiments for him to do in flight. It was always a thrill for me to see and speak to him. It was sort of a full circle, going from being inspired by him to working with him and having him consider me a part of his team."

Charles sees himself remaining part of the NASA team for the future and expects to continue to be involved in strategic planning to help find the answers to the problems of long-duration spaceflight.

"My job is to have the answers ready. When they say, 'We want to send people to Mars or the Moon. Are we ready to do that?' I would like to be in the position to help the life sciences [people] say, 'Yes, and here are the answers to the questions.'"

All text and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight Center.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 06/23/2003
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