To the Bluegrass and Beyond: Alumnus John Charles Reflects on 30-year career at NASA

Dr. John Charles presents the research of the Human Research Program at NASA
Centrifuge at Wenner-Gren
Cartoons drawn by John Charles illustrating his research

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 16, 2018) Why?

That's the question John Charles constantly asked his parents as a boy. His father was a trained geologist, but he struggled to answer his son's barrage of questions about nature. So he made sure young John had plenty of books about science and space and encouraged him to find the answers.

John Charles grew up in the early years of the Space Age. "I remember vividly playing 'John Glenn' by lying on my back on a cement footbridge in the dusty elementary school playground, with my feet up on the metal pipe handrails, in the launch position, just like John Glenn." He recalls with frustration missing the televised coverage of the one-man Mercury missions, because they would launch while he was at school and splashdown before he got home.

"Something about spaceflight piqued my curiosity in a way that previous fascinations with being a clown, an artist or a soldier did not."

So Charles set his sights on joining NASA, studying gravity produced by black holes and planets as an undergraduate at The Ohio State University before realized that his true interest laid in life and living things. The role of gravity in biology "promised new opportunities and insights." After graduating with a degree in biophysics, he looked for a graduate program in gravitational physiology. Only two universities had such a program: University of Virginia and University of Kentucky. UK had already produced one scientist-astronaut - Story Musgrave, who was a surgical intern and postdoctoral fellow before being joining NASA in 1967.

"If [Musgrave] thought [UK] was good preparation for a career in space, then who was I to disagree? That turned out to be the best possible decision I could have made."

"John Charles was not a typical student," said Joyce Evans. "He was full of ideas, even his dissertation proposal could have gone in several directions other than the way he finally took it. He has a great ability to poke fun at everything, even himself. His protocol changed with each of the first eight studies we performed and he drew a series of cartoons to greet us before the start of each study."

"John is one of those students one really remembers in a special way," said Dr. David Randall. "He knew what he wanted the moment he applied."

His early research at UK was in the lab of vascular physiologist Daniel Richardson in what was then the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. Randall, who was on John’s graduate committee, worked with Dr. Charles Knapp and Joyce Evans in UK's Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory on an interdisciplinary study of effects of repetitive acceleration loading, or "g-loading" on the cardiovascular system. Funded by a grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Dr. Knapp and his team modified Wenner-Gren's 50-foot diameter centrifuge to reproduce g-levels experienced by pilots, and outfitted it to accommodate the test subjects, tranquilized dogs.

"I was interested in the effect of aerobic conditioning on the cardiovascular responses, because many pilots exercised by running or jogging," said Charles. "It was just being realized that such aerobic conditioning could interfere with the body's ability to withstand g-loads." He compared normal dogs with dogs he had trained on a treadmill and found that the aerobically-conditioned dogs had more sluggish reflexes that counteract g-loading.

"When he came to UK he was determined to do NASA type studies," said Dr. Knapp. "But before he could accomplish his career goals, he had to pick a dissertation topic. John recognized the uniqueness of the centrifuge in that it was the only large, variable radius centrifuge at any U.S. university. As you might expect, this “space dreamer” wrote the most ambitious dissertation proposal the two academic units had ever seen. His proposal was extremely challenging and if proposed by any other student, the dissertation committee would most likely have turned it down. But with his drive and enthusiasm, they cautiously agreed."

"We do lots of interesting human and biological research at NASA but the things that we do the best are the big, complex projects that cannot really be done by universities or even some of the other space agencies around the world," said Charles. "I was extremely fortunate to have had one of those under my belt at UK before I arrived at NASA, and I pity others who don’t have such experience."

In 1983, with a doctoral degree from UK in hand, Charles arrived at Johnson Space Center in Houston as a postdoctoral fellow in the medical research branch. Within a few years, he was running the lab, and he and his team studied the problem of orthostatic intolerance, the light-headedness astronauts feel when they return to Earth from orbit.

In 1994, he became one of the coordinating scientists for the joint program with the Russians which encompassed eleven space shuttle missions to the Russian space station Mir. He began his tour with the programs as a deputy to the project scientist Peggy Whitson, before taking over the position when she was selected for the astronaut corps. He was selected as the lead for the Bioastronauts Critical Path Roadmap Project which studied the physiological problems that would need to be addressed to make a mission to Mars possible.

In 1998, he served as the project scientist for the experiments conducted by his childhood role model, John Glenn.

"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," said Charles of his career highlights. "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 went on to serve as the mission scientist for STS-107, the final mission of the Columbia, and then chief scientist of NASA's Human Research Program (HRP) from 2007-2012 and again from 2016-2017. He was chief of the HRP's International Science Office, where he and his Russian counterpart planned the experiments for astronaut Scott Kelly's one-year ISS mission. He also oversaw experiments for Kelly as part of the "Twins Study" which encompassed 10 separate investigations comparing Kelly in the space environment to his twin brother Mark who remained on Earth.

“John was instrumental in the planning and execution of mission experiments," said Scott Kelly. "He’s very measured, considerate and thoughtful. I enjoyed working with him.”

As Charles prepares to retire from NASA in February, he reflects on the highlights of his career, from working with John Glenn, to his interactions with his Russian counterparts.

"Working with the Russians on the Mir and 1-year projects was valuable because it showed me that there are other “right” ways to do such things," said Charles. "The Russians were as successful as NASA but many of their processes and philosophies were different. This shows that there is more than one way to get a good answer. Plus, as a space history fanatic, it was great to see their research and cosmonaut centers. I even got to attend a launch in Kazakhstan, a rare opportunity for an American and totally unthinkable just a few decades ago in the middle of the Cold War."

Charles recently attended UK's Cardiovascular Research Day, where he gave the Distinguished Alumni Presentation entitled, "From the Bluegrass to Beyond the Blue."

As a new generation of scientists moves in, John urges them not to limit themselves to a narrow scope of research.

"Science is getting more and more specialized, even compared to my experience just a few decades ago," Charles said. "Now scientists know more and more about less and less. It is good to be more a well-rounded individual and to have a knowledge of not just your specialty, but of the rest of the field, and other fields, different areas of science, and history and the arts and politics. It is important to see how they all fit together. The people who can see the broad sweep and explain it to the managers and politicians and taxpayers are the people who make it possible for the specialists to be able to specialize."

"I am only three years older than NASA, and have spent more than half my life in NASA. We have sort of grown up together, and I have often been in the right place at the right time with the right skill set to get involved with projects as they have gotten more complex."