Explore your career horizons, astronaut tells vet students


Dr. Rick Linnehan, a NASA astronaut and a veterinarian, spoke to UF veterinary students on Monday about career opportunities for veterinarians.

Kate Feldman/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 2:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 2:31 p.m.

Dr. Rick Linnehan was in town on Monday to tell veterinary students not to curtail their vision when it comes to their careers. The sky's the limit, and he should know.

Linnehan managed to combine two seemingly disparate disciplines - veterinarian and NASA astronaut - in a career that has carried him on four Space Shuttle flights for more than 58 days in space.

“Being an astronaut has afforded me a lot of opportunities. It's allowed me to do a lot of things I never dreamed I could do as a vet,” said Linnehan, who was aboard the shuttles Columbia and Endeavor and visited the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station.

Linnehan, 54, spoke at the Veterinary Academic Building at the University of Florida Monday afternoon about unusual opportunities for veterinarians.

He began working as the chief clinical veterinarian for the U.S. Navy's Marine Mammal Program in 1989. In 1992, he was selected to train at the Johnson Space Center to become a mission specialist on space shuttle flights.

Speaking of his time in space, he asked his audience of 30 to picture themselves in a suit of armor wearing roller skates, boxing gloves and fish bowls on their heads, trying to change a spark plug in the dark. This, he said, was the best example of how it felt to wear the space suits.

But he said he and his crewmates still found time to enjoy their new surroundings. As a prank, he said, they would often create giant water bubbles and sneak them into sleep stations while their owners were asleep.

“I never said that, if NASA asks,” he joked.

In an interview before the speech, Linnehan talked about how research in the unique environment of space has a direct impact on medical issues, such as arthritis, here on Earth.

“A lot of things that happen to your grandparents happen to astronauts in a much shorter period of time,” he said. “I can take the research from space and use it to help people and animals on earth.”

Justin Starns, a 22-year-old first-year graduate student in the veterinary program, said he first heard about Linnehan when he was working at the Kennedy Space Center while pursuing his undergraduate degree.

“I had no idea that vets could even go to space,” he said. “I'd love to learn how to become an astronaut like him.”

Although the space shuttle program is over, Linnehan said that it is impossible to know the future of NASA, so students shouldn't be discouraged.

“It's important that kids realize that if you study and do well, you can do anything,” he said. “Don't believe people who say you can't.”

Linnehan's official title, NASA astronaut, doesn't begin to describe his job, he said. Currently, he's working at Texas A&M University in the Office of Strategic Initiatives.

“We're working on being able to plug into the NASA infrastructure to start rejuvenating the technology (in the space station),” he said in the interview. “One of the paramount things at NASA is education.”

Linnehan said he's also hoping to develop more in-depth education for elementary and middle school students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Without greater education in these fields, he said, the United States won't be able to compete as a nation in the future.

“One day, we're going to have to leave the planet,” he said, “and we'd better have a means to do it.”

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