They wheeled in a gunshot victim. It was Anil Menon’s first trauma case as resident in charge at San Francisco General Hospital. The young physician paused for just a second, then fell back on his training — airway, breathing, circulation — and swung into action, delivering directions to his team.
“I remember there being about 20 people in the room, all staring at me, waiting to hear what I had to say,” Menon said. “But I had studied a lot, and I had trained for this.”
They worked through the initial evaluation and discovered the gunshot had caused pneumothorax, air trapped between the patient’s lung and its encompassing membrane, constricting the lung’s ability to expand. Menon got a chest tube in, then sent the patient to the surgical ICU.
Menon, 45, a Harvard alum who was named a member of NASA’s latest astronaut class in December, has made a career out of managing stressful situations. Since leaving Harvard College in 1999, he graduated from Stanford Medical School, completed a residency in emergency medicine, a fellowship in wilderness medicine, and served as a NASA flight surgeon, overseeing the health of those flying to space. He joined the Air National Guard, became a pilot, and supervised medical operations — sometimes under fire — on search and rescue helicopters in Afghanistan.
When the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, he was there. A year later, when a vintage P-51 fighter crashed at the Reno Air Show, he helped injured spectators at a nearby hospital and followed the medical response plan he helped developed in advance as part of his Guard work. In 2015, when a quake struck Nepal, he was in northern India to support an adventure race and instead took a taxi to Kathmandu to help. He has provided aid to climbers at Mount Everest base camp, drivers at the Indy 500, and contestants racing across the Sahara Desert. And now Menon wants to do it all in space.
“If I get assigned to the ISS, it will largely be doing research. That’d be a really fulfilling thing for me to do,” said Menon, a neurobiology concentrator at Harvard who cut his teeth in research at a lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. “[But] I would say my aspirations are always as far as possible. If given the opportunity to fly to Mars, I would fly to Mars. The next big step for NASA is to launch the Artemis Program in February and then to land on the moon with the human lander system and to sustainably have a presence there. Any of those opportunities I would be overjoyed to do.”
Menon and NASA’s intense, always-prepared culture seem an apt fit. When asked how he keeps cool in the kind of stressful situations that most people hope they’ll never encounter, Menon said he trains, and trains some more. That way when the situation arises, even for the first time, it feels as if he’s been there before.
“These remote medical skills are some of the things that hopefully we’ll be able to lean on and help NASA with, because our overall goal — my goal — is how do you take those kinds of real experiences and skills — without any of the usual kind of equipment — and translate that to treating people who are up in space for six months?” Menon said. “As we get more people landing on the moon and staying on the moon, it’ll be harder to evacuate people. And Mars is next-level in not being able to evacuate folks and really needing to apply wilderness-based medicine.”
Menon’s love of space started young. He grew up in Minneapolis, the son of immigrants from Ukraine and India. He credits visits to the Science Museum of Minnesota for sparking his interest, specifically an Imax movie called “The Dream Is Alive.” The film focuses on the U.S. Space Shuttle program and highlights footage taken by crews in space. It showed training sessions and missions aboard the Discovery and the ill-fated Challenger, which would disintegrate shortly after liftoff in 1986. (The film was completed a number of months before the tragedy.)
Menon’s interest in space fed a broader interest in science. While in high school, he published research conducted at the Minnesota Zoo, which got him thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. and a research career. After arriving at Harvard, he settled into Wigglesworth Hall, spending his first year in a room once occupied by actor Tommy Lee Jones before moving with blockmates to Lowell House. He also became interested in neurobiology and conducted Huntington’s Disease research for two years in the MGH lab of Jang-Ho Cha, then a Harvard Medical School professor and today the global head of translational medicine at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge.