Surgeon General of newly formed Space Force focuses on ‘protecting the freedom of peaceful operations in space’

By Elisabeth George | Reporter, Video by Grace Smith | Broadcast Reporter

The Baylor College of Arts and Sciences hosted Col. Walter M. “Sparky” Matthews Wednesday night for a lecture on the United States Space Force and the future of medicine in space.

Matthews, a 1992 Baylor graduate, is the Surgeon General of the newly formed United States Space Force (USSF), a military service branch with the purpose of equipping, training and organizing space forces to protect as well as provide space capabilities to the U.S. and allied interests in space.

Matthews is an aerospace medicine specialist and a command surgeon for the United States Space Command. He is board certified in aerospace medicine, public health and general preventive medicine and is rated as a chief flight surgeon.

Matthews also serves as the senior Department of Defense medical officer for the USSF. He manages all medical readiness planning, training and execution for the USSF as well as advising senior leadership on relevant medical matters.

The USSF has been in operation for three months, having been established in late December of last year.

“[The USSF] was created by the president signing the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019,” Matthews said. “At that time, the Air Force Space Command was re-designated as the United States Space Force. It was established with 16,000 airmen, so it was drawn completely out of the Air Force. We have eight combat organizations, and one acquisition organization.”

Matthews said that the USSF is not a part of the Air Force, but is a separate organization.

“There are a lot of us in the Air Force that support the space force, but it’s a separate organization now,” Matthews said. “And that new service has inherited the best of the Air Force, and we’re establishing what’s necessary to move forward.”

Matthews said the importance of the USSF is in protecting the freedom of peaceful operations in space.

“Space is now equal to air when it comes to wartime operations, when it comes to war-fighting domains. The United States, and Space Force and the Department of Defense would prefer that space remains free of conflict” Matthews said. “We don’t want to fight in space. We don’t want to fight from space. We would like to sing Kumbaya in space with everyone else around the world if we could.”

“The problem is our competitors, our adversaries, aren’t doing it. Okay, so we have to match their capability and exceed their capability to assure that we have the freedom to move, and the freedom to operate and free access to space,” Matthews said. “Not only for us but for our friends and for everyone else. So that’s the reason this is that spaceforce has been created is because of the threat.”

The focus of the lecture was the practice of medicine in space. Matthews said that the lecture might not provide answers to how medicine will be practiced in space. There are still a lot of unknowns in this field.

“Your body changes when you go to space… it acts differently. And so, if your body acts differently, we have to change the way we treat patients. But we don’t know how to do that yet, because we don’t know what the problems are. That’s what we have to figure out. Does the body heal the same way on the moon or Mars and it does?” Matthews said. “Right now, we’re just trying to figure out what the right questions are… How do we sustain the human away from Earth? And when I say away from Earth, I’m not just talking about the moon; I’m talking about Mars and beyond for some time, eventually, the entire lifespan of a human never living on Earth.”

Some of the questions Matthews mentioned to be considered are surgeries in zero gravity conditions, handing deoxygenation in extra vehicular activity suits, the logistics of obtaining resources and transporting injured patients.

Matthews mentioned the strides have been made in printing 3-D blood cells and how the International Space Stations is attempting to print a human kidney.

Matthews said he went into detail about these issues because it is the type of research that can be done at an undergraduate institution.

“The most important thing that I want you to take away [from the lecture], is I want you to be excited for where we’re going. For what we’re doing. For what you are about to be a part of,” Matthews said. “I want you to remember that America is committed to ensuring unfettered access to, and freedom to operate in, space. That’s what space force is all about. Making sure that anyone who wants to go to space can go there and operate freely.”

Fort Worth freshman Katherine Scheffrahn said she attended the lecture because she had been following the story in the news.

“I saw ‘Apollo 13 when I was seven, it terrified me. I will never go to space. That scares me,” Scheffrahn said. “But getting involved in research would be so fascinating, because I think the problem solving aspect of it, that’s something so different and new. Like the fact that like, there’s so many things to discover, and problem solving, that I think that would be really interesting to do research on that.”

Woodway, sophomore Rebecca Mulley said she heard about the lecture from one of her classes.

“It was really intriguing, hearing about space and the news. And I have a couple of friends in ROTC. It’s interesting learning more about their world a little bit. It would be cool to be involved in [research] and stuff like that,” Mulley said.

Mulley also said she is planning on going to medical school and specializing in surgery; but she definitely wants to stay on earth to do it.

Matthews said he strongly encourages interested students to look into Space Force. He said he will be retiring from the Air Force August 1, and that same day will begin working as a professor at Baylor.

“We are going back to the moon, and from there, going to Mars. There will be humans walking on Mars in your lifetime. It’s going to happen. You could be one of those people if you want to. You’re the right place in your education to be one of those astronauts. As humans, push farther into space medical support has to follow.”