A Brilliant NASA Scientist Who Enhanced Astronaut Health, John B. Charles, Has Died

He was 66.
Brad Bergan
John B. Charles (left), and an astronaut on a spacewalk (right).1, 2

NASA has lost one of its most noble veterans.

John B. Charles, NASA's former chief scientist for the agency's human research program, has died, according to a Wednesday tweet from Vanessa Wyche, director of the agency's Johnson Space Center.

"He served for 33 years at NASA, retiring as chief scientist for the Human Research Program @NASA_Johnson," read the tweet. Charles leaves behind a legacy of deeply moving accomplishments, transforming spaceflight training and improving the well-being of astronauts during missions, and much more.

He was 66.

John B. Charles advanced research for long-term space missions

Years before his death, he retired from NASA in 2018 after 35 years of crucial research. While at the Johnson Space Center, he spent much of his lab career examining the issue of orthostatic intolerance, which is a feeling of faintness that astronauts get upon returning to the Earth after an orbital flight. Charles and his research team helped to create a postflight test of orthostatic function, inventing a way to lower what's called lower body negative pressure (LBNP) and restore bodily fluid balance throughout the body by drinking water with salt tablets. But for Charles, the high-point of his career came earlier: "I have to rate as one of the highest the chance to work with John Glenn, because he inspired me way back in 1962 to be interested in spaceflight," said Charles in a NASA blog post, when he retired. 

"Then 36 years later, when he flew on the shuttle, I dealt with him on a fairly regular basis to prepare our experiments for him to do in flight," added Charles. "It was always a thrill for me to see and speak to him. It was sort of a full circle, going from being inspired by him to working with him and having him consider me a part of his team." While Chief Scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Charles also focused on the One-Year Mission, where Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and Astronaut Scott Kelly spent an entire year aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — to enhance research of medical, psychological, and biomedical sciences for long-term missions.

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A lifetime of service to NASA's human space flight

Charles was "not only a towering (metaphorically and literally) figure at JSC life sci, but a serious spae history geek," said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard's Center for Astrophysics, in a tweet. Indeed, Charles deftly coordinated NASA's microgravity, biomedical, and biological research on Mir, and even for the Space Shuttle Columbia's final mission, according to the tweeted statement from Wyche. And Charles' passion for the science of space travel began at a very young age. "At about age 10, I decided to quit dreaming and actually focus on a career in the space business," said Charles, incredibly, in the 2018 NASA post.

Through intense academic studies, Charles learned that the most appropriate way to mix his interest in biology with his need to do something in space was a fully-fledged career, as an accomplished research physiologist. After a lifetime of service to the dream of human space flight with NASA, Charles spent his final years as a Fellow of the Aerospace Medical Association, and was also a Full Member of the International Academy of Astronautics. He even published 60 scientific articles, and was the honored recipient of multiple awards in his profession. Married to his wife Kathy for two decades, he leaves behind two kids, in addition to a grandchild. John B. Charles will be remembered as NASA continues to build on his three-and-a-half decades of brilliant work.