01 Feb The Secret Doctors of NASA: A Dentist’s Discovery
“The Secret Doctors of NASA” is a series of memoirs, diaries, and reports from actual doctors employed by an undisclosed arm of NASA between 1970 and 2001. These writings contain true accounts of the unusual and often highly-classified medical conditions experienced by astronauts during and after their space missions. Following the defunding of the clandestine medical program after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the majority of these accounts were left, forgotten, on tape drives in a NASA storage facility. In 2016, a former intern, whose job was to clean out one of these facilities, discovered them. Two years later, he is ready to release what he found.
A Dentist’s Discovery
Arnold F. A*******, DDS
August 4th, 1989
I met the astronaut after a half-year mission on the Russian space station. He’d gone through his preliminary post-landing physical but complained about pain in his jaw and gums. His health, aside from those complaints, was fair.
It was my job to find out what was wrong with him before moving him on to the next specialist. The urologist, I think. The order always changes.
The patient was in decent spirits when we met, although I could tell something was on his mind. We chatted for a little bit. It turned out he’d been working on the Feng-Lee Discovery. My heart sank.
When Feng and Lee discovered what they initially called “the Venus tic-tacs” in 1982, no one in-the-know was surprised. Just another alien organism to add to the list of hundreds. A team was formed to conduct research and determine its risks and benefits, and there were no expectations that anything would come of it.
Well, as is so often the case, those in-the-know knew nothing. Give those Venus tic-tacs an electric shock in the right place for the right amount of time and what do you get? Pluripotent stem cells. They had the potential to be a game changer in the field of regenerative medicine. I don’t think anyone expected to discover them when we did; all the data we had showed we were at least a decade away from inducing pluripotency. Hell, we assumed civilian doctors might figure them out first. This was Big. Capital B.
In dentistry, it meant we might be able to regrow missing teeth and reverse jaw deterioration. I followed the studies with great interest.
The animal tests were successful. New teeth, better jaws, nice smiles all around. Success. Good. Great.
The researchers moved onto human subjects. Failure. Nothing. Zilch.
No reason. No god damn reason whatsoever. No one could figure out why there was 100% success with animal subjects and 0% with people. The cells wouldn’t grow AT ALL.
Then, a doctor named Franco T******, who’d been on the team since the beginning, suggested they try using the tic-tac cells on people in space. He didn’t give a reason, and I don’t think he had one. It was probably something like “well fuck it, it doesn’t work here so let’s try it up there.”
So we did.
And it worked.
The effects were different for everyone. Sometimes cavities were repaired. Sometimes jaw bones grew again. Then again, sometimes teeth fell out. And jaws collapsed. That’s what happened to Jose G********. No one wanted to use Venus tic-tacs again.
That’s why, when this astronaut came to me with pain in his gums and jaw and told me he’d been working on the Feng-Lee Discovery, I was less than thrilled with what I’d find. There’d been a six-year moratorium on Venus tic-tac human experimentation since the Jose incident. It had only been lifted a year ago. Apparently someone on that team wanted to pick up right where they’d left off.
While I talked to the astronaut, he informed me that there’d been new research on the tic-tacs. I frowned and told him I wasn’t aware of anything new. He filled me in.
Apparently there’d been some civilian advances in stem-cell technology that ended up contributing to our own knowledge of the science. New experiments were drawn up, plausibility was determined, and one of the team leaders impressed the brass at NASA’s ethics division. That, combined with the limited number of Venus tic-tacs that’d been recovered and the uncertainty surrounding how much longer they’d live, ended the moratorium.
That was all well and good. At that point, I still hadn’t looked inside the astronaut’s mouth. Before we’d started chatting, I had my assistant do some x-rays of his jaw. They developed while we talked. Now they were ready.
I’m going to digress for a second. Have you ever seen what a child’s skull looks like before their adult teeth have come in? It’s unsettling. Look at this. That was all of us at one point. I’ve been a dentist for the last 36 years. I’ve dealt with a lot of crazy stuff, but just thinking about all those holes makes me uneasy. Some things just stick with you, I guess.
Why am I mentioning this? This astronaut – this grown man – had what looked like new teeth forming above his adult ones. I consulted with the x-rays we took before his mission. There was nothing unusual about them – just the filled cavities and mild bone-loss in his jaw that had made him a test candidate for the tic-tac cells.
Now, as I stared at the new x-ray, I saw the cavities were still there. The jaw was still decaying. But those dark smudges on the x-ray indicated new teeth deep in there. I’d never seen anything like it.
I remained professional. I asked him to lean back and open his mouth so I could begin the examination.
As soon as I took my first look, I knew something was dreadfully wrong. His gums were puffy and bled at the slightest touch. His teeth looked gray, as if they’d never been brushed. It didn’t make sense.
I swung the magnifying lens over and brightened the light. I think he heard me stifle my gasp when I looked through.
His teeth were covered in infinitesimal holes. They were much smaller than regular cavities. I looked closer. Each of the holes had a tiny, pink hair sticking out of its center. I touched the tip of my instrument to one of the hairs. It recoiled back into the tooth.
At this point, I was getting uneasy. I asked the astronaut if what I did hurt and he told me it did, but not badly.
I decided to numb the gums around his top front teeth. While I waited for the novocaine to take effect, I studied his molars. Those had bigger holes with thicker growths. When I reached for one of them with my instrument, rather than slip back into the tooth, the hair extended about a quarter of an inch and wrapped around the metal tip. The astronaut didn’t seem to feel it.
I gave the instrument a gentle tug. Nothing. I pulled harder – but still barely using any force. The molar came out. My patient gasped and I apologized profusely. I stopped what I was doing and put the instrument and the tooth out of his line of sight.
I decided to level with him. I told him there was some severe damage to his teeth and I didn’t know what it was. I said I needed to do more exploratory work and it would likely be very uncomfortable.
The astronaut did his best to take it in stride. He told me he knew something was very, very wrong from the moment he was brushing his teeth on the space station and the bristles would get caught inside the holes. The thought made me shudder.
Anyway, I numbed his mouth the best I could and got to work. By the end of it, I’d accidentally caused nine of his teeth to fall out. All that remained in their place were those bizarre, pink hairs.
I sent him back to base with an appointment for the next day. It was going to remove the rest of his teeth. I felt terrible for the guy.
I got a call in the middle of the night from the Head of Medicine at the NASA hospital. I had to come there right away.
The astronaut’s roommate had called emergency services an hour or so ago. He was in excruciating pain and bleeding from the mouth. I arrived at the hospital in ten minutes.
I expected to be able to go right into the room and see the patient, but I was stopped by security and the Head of Medicine. He instructed me to put on a clean-room suit. Right then, I knew something was deeply wrong.
I donned the suit and followed the Head into one of the two observation areas above a hermetically-sealed operating room. I looked at one of the television screens showing the astronaut’s mouth. My stomach churned.
All the man’s teeth had fallen out. In their place, growing out of his gaping, bloody gums, were swirling tangles of the pink hairs. I watched as a surgeon grasped one of the tangles in a pair of forceps and pulled. And pulled. One doctor held the astronaut’s head while the surgeon put his weight into the effort. With the sound of a heavy piece of brush being torn from the ground, the tangles gave way.
They writhed at the end of the forceps. The ones still in his mouth stretched out, as if they were trying to take it away and bring it back. The surgeon dropped the veiny clot into a bowl and the camera zoomed in on it.
At the top of of the tangle was something solid. Something that, I realized, looked very much like one of those new teeth deep inside the astronaut’s jawbone I’d seen on the x-ray that afternoon. Now, out and exposed to the light, I saw it wasn’t a tooth at all. It was a brand new Venus tic-tac — the first we’d ever discovered outside a Venusian meteorite.
So the issue of pluripotent stem cells and whether or not they’ll benefit human subjects is still a mystery. And, after hours of surgery, my patient is in a coma. As a human being, I write this with a heavy heart. As a scientist, though, I have some hope. Maybe even a little excitement. Thanks to that poor astronaut, now we know how to breed new Venus tic-tacs. Perhaps, someday, we’ll learn how to use them.