Folly Beach is the Place for Space: Donna R. Roberts, MD

Donna R. Roberts, MD

She’s not a rocket scientist . . . Nor an astronaut. But she is the closest you will find to one on Folly Beach. Dr. Donna Roberts, long time resident of Folly Beach, researches the effects microgravity (weightlessness) has on the human brain by examining brain images of astronauts before and after space travel. She also performs brain stimulation studies on herself and colleagues while floating weightless 32,000 feet above Earth aboard a 747 that flies in a roller coaster flight path creating repeated 20-30 second intervals of weightlessness. And Dr. Roberts is a licensed pilot. When asked if it is true that she flies aerobatics, she lights up and proudly replies Yes indeed!


Donna grew up in Georgetown SC. After earning two engineering degrees Donna began working at Lockheed supporting research programs to understand how to keep astronauts safe and healthy during space missions. At that time researchers were investigating space flight’s impact on bone loss, muscle mass loss, immune system suppression, cardiovascular deconditioning . . . seemingly everything except what Donna was interested in – human brain function in spaceflight. Conventional thinking at the time was that spaceflight had no impact on the brain so Donna’s suggestion to study the brain received no traction.


Motivated to learn how to keep the brain healthy during space travel, Donna quit her job at Lockheed, attended medical school at MUSC, and completed a residency in Radiology and a fellowship in Neuroradiology. Dr. Donna Roberts is now a faculty member in the Department of Radiology at MUSC. Finally, NASA agrees with Dr. Roberts. She now conducts research sponsored by NASA, investigating how spaceflight alters the brain during long stays in microgravity, and how to keep it healthy for even longer periods of time in space such as would be required to travel to Mars or while living at a lunar base.


Last month Donna left her home on Folly and moved to Washington DC to begin her new career as the Deputy Chief Scientist for the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory, whose motto is Science in Space to Benefit Life on Earth. Donna and the rest of the ISS National Lab team will be instrumental in achieving NASA’s strategic goal of creating a robust economy in low-Earth orbit. They will have to hurry. Congress has funded the ISS only through 2030 meaning Donna has less than 8 yrs until the ISS is decommissioned & deorbited. During these 8 years the ISS National Lab will need to open up the ISS for business by soliciting viable products and applications for in-space manufacturing on the ISS or on commercially owned and operated space stations. Tourism should be the biggest business opportunity, but other potentially practical options abound such as: manufacturing silicon chips & fiber optic filament; growing stem cells, heart tissue and retinas; and creating bioprinted human organs.


Commercial exploration of space has arrived! SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, among others, continue to make significant progress. NASA is confident that private industry will develop commercially owned and operated space stations prior to 2030. In September 2021, Inspiration4, a precursor of the Polaris Program, completed its 3 day orbital mission becoming the first human spaceflight to orbit Earth with only private citizens on board. Netflix chronicled the Inspiration4 mission in their series Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space. Polaris Dawn, the first of three Polaris missions, will launch as early as December 2023, and will include the first civilian spacewalk. Donna will take brain scans of the four civilian astronauts before and after the mission.


Donna regrets that space exploration has lost much of the public’s attention since its heyday with the Apollo missions 50 years ago, and more recently with the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. She is quick to remind us that space exploration is not dead, but alive and thriving. Just last year a NASA mission successfully deflected an asteroid! In 2015 New Horizons successfully explored Pluto up close and is now deep into the Kuiper Belt. Have you heard of the Artemis Program? Artemis 1 successfully completed flybys of the Moon in late 2022. Artemis 2 is scheduled to perform a crewed lunar flyby in 2024. Artemis 3 will involve a crewed lunar landing, the first in five decades since Apollo 17.


Donna’s enthusiasm about space exploration is contagious. She fully supports going boldly where no man (or woman) has gone before. Donna considers SpaceX’s ability to recover and reuse the first stages of their rockets a revolutionary game-changer. Folly Beach has a front row seat to watch the SpaceX launches. Go to the beach and look south. Just a few moments after launch the glow of the approaching rocket appears. Then just off of Folly the first stage shuts off and the second stage ignites. Keep watching as the first stage boost back burners ignite and guide the first stage to a soft vertical landing aboard an awaiting landing barge. Stunning and spectacular space gymnastics right off of Folly Beach! Donna’s parting advice before moving to Washington DC was Look up and watch the show Folly Beach! Check the links below for information on upcoming launches and how best to observe the ISS:
Spaceflightnow.com | Spotthestation.nasa.gov

Watch Donna’s TEDxCharleston Presentation: Your Brain In Space