Bachelor of Science in natural sciences, 1984; Doctor of Medicine, University of Kentucky, 1988; Master of Science in aerospace medicine, Wright State University, 1991; Master of Health Informatics, University of Texas Houston Health Sciences Center, 2001 | Flight surgeon for NASA.
Moon Dreams At age 7, McGinnis watched the televised landing of the Apollo 11 space capsule on the moon. That launched his dream of becoming an astronaut. Now, at age 41, he’s still trying to get accepted to the astronaut training program.
Love Match He also had a love for medicine, and eventually earned an M.D., two master’s degrees and gained employment as a flight surgeon for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—the perfect match for his two loves.
Flight Surgeon The name harkens back to the Civil War when all military doctors were called surgeons. The term carried over into WWI and WWII, and NASA began carrying that practice into space, assigning doctors to astronauts and their families.
The Practice McGinnis is based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he and a team of 20 flight surgeons operate a family practice clinic that serves the astronauts, test pilots, and engineers. The clinic is responsible for their annual medical certifications, which means that McGinnis’ decisions could send a young hotshot pilot or astronaut soaring—or ground him.
Space Flights He’s been the crew surgeon for four shuttle missions, including two involving the Russian space station Mir and one to the International Space Station. He’s been to Russia twice to train with American astronauts and keep them healthy during their strenuous preparation.
Ground Control Once the shuttle is launched, the surgeons monitor the astronauts’ health from mission control. Some of the problems they’ve dealt with: a fire on board emitting toxic fumes, leaking coolant, depressurization.
Sad Day McGinnis was preparing to see patients when he heard about the shuttle Columbia disintegrating. Though he wasn’t the flight surgeon for the mission, he had treated most of the crew.
“One of my co-workers said they’d lost communication with the shuttle. I thought it was no big deal because they go through communication losses all the time. Then I saw the TV, and I knew what happened. There was this terrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
Team Work “NASA trusts you to make appropriate recommendations, and we want to make sure the mission is successful and safe,” he says. “You get a tremendous sense of pride and satisfaction to see your crew go up, do their thing and come home. I tell people this is the most fun you can have and be a doctor because you’re part of a mission and part of the team.”