As part of Women’s History Month, UCF is sharing stories of some of the extraordinary women on campus contributing to science and scholarship.
BY ROBERT WELLS | MARCH 22, 2021
From sleeping on her apartment floor as an early career physician to preparing astronauts for spacewalks, Esther Beltran has never given up following her passions. Her advice to others: Never stop dreaming.
Beltran is the director of space medicine and life sciences at the University of Central Florida’s Florida Space Institute.
At UCF, her projects include helping develop effective countermeasures against space radiation, finding ways to mitigate the negative effects of microgravity on the human body, and researching ways to minimize the health risk of lunar dust for upcoming missions to the moon.
Currently Beltran is working on the Radiation Effects on Volatiles and Exoploration of Asteroids and Lunar Surfaces (REVEALS) program for NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. Beltran, a deputy principal investigator is studying novel composites and how they can more effectively protect people against radiation encountered in space. The team is also looking at incorporating active real-time dosimeters detectors made of nano-particles and 2D metamaterials. The goal is to create an effective radiation polymers, as well as warning systems, which would significantly increase efficiency of risk mitigation strategies and ehance crew safety. The materials and dosimetry systems developed would be integrated into spacesuits, life support systems, and mobility units to enhance Extravehicular Activities safety.
Beltran immigrated to the U.S. from Catalonia, in the early ‘90s after completing her physician education and training, and worked at a hospital near Philadelphia. Starting from scratch with nothing but her packed suitcase, she used her clothes to soften the floor for a bed until she could begin to furnish her apartment.
“Throughout these years I had to overcome that I was a foreigner, a woman and also considered a minority,” Beltran says. “So that was three strikes against me. And I was entering, especially back then, the male-dominated field of aerospace medicine, and a lot of the older generation had a very macho attitude.”
“I got used to having a lot of quick comebacks to stand up for myself,” she says.
It was then that Beltran began codifying her values that she follows today: respect for yourself, independence, perseverance…and following your heart.
She recalls facing devastating medical cases, where she saw the brokenness of humanity, but also witnessing the very best in people, too, like skilled doctors bringing hope and healing.
After a couple of years in Pennsylvania, Beltran’s restless spirit began eyeing the horizon. She decided on an aerospace graduate program in North Dakota.
She went on to earn a master’s in aerospace sciences from the University of North Dakota and then a doctorate in public health, aerospace medicine, and occupational and environmental health from the University of Texas’ Health Science Center in Houston.
Aerospace sciences was taking Beltran’s medical skills and stretching them across a new environment where they would be applied to humans living and working in extreme environments, which included high altitudes, space and under water.
Beltran was selected to serve as one of the medical doctors at Johnson Space Center to help develop spacewalk protocols in preparation for the International Space Station,.
During the summer of 1999 she took a short break from Johnson to serve as a medical officer for an archaeology trip to Turkey to excavate a submerged merchant ship dating back to 400 B.C. The expedition was filmed by National Geographic and released as part of National Geographic: Lost Ships of the Mediterranean.
When she returned home, she continued working on spacewalk protocols and completed her doctorate in aerospace medicine making her a flight surgeon.
Never one to sit still, she moved to Florida where she began teaching human factors, flight physiology and safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. She also worked with military and special forces pilots at Bristow Academy, now U.S. Aviation Training Solutions in Titusville, Florida.
After eight years of training pilots in Florida, Beltran came to UCF’s Florida Space Institute in 2011.
As a teacher and physician, Beltran learned the power of words to keep people safe and make a difference. For this reason, she wrote a book, Fly High, Reach the Sky!, to inspire others to achieve their best and avoid pitfalls such as self-doubt and deferring their dreams.
She especially hopes to inspire women, and in particular, those who may feel trapped by circumstances or intimidated of entering a male-dominated field.
Some of her advice is: It’s OK to put your needs first sometimes; don’t base your value on the approval of others; take full responsibility as the conductor of your life; don’t be intimidated by rank, position or social status; avoid toxic relationships and situations; and never give up on your dreams.