Soldiers and astronauts have inherently dangerous jobs, but there’s one hazard to which many people likely haven’t given a lot of thought– hearing loss. Baylor College of Medicine’s Richard Danielson has devoted his career to audiology-related issues in the military and at NASA, and now he’s being honored for his commitment to the field.
Danielson, who has a joint appointment in Baylor’s Bobby R. Alford Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery and in the Center for Space Medicine, has received the Outstanding Hearing Conservationist Award from the National Hearing Conservation Association. He will accept the award at the association’s annual conference in March in Las Vegas.
Danielson served 28 years in the U.S. Army, including serving during Operation Desert Storm as the officer-in-charge of the first Audiology Task Force ever deployed to a combat theater.
He attended college on an ROTC scholarship in the 1970s, while the Vietnam War was still going on. The Army had just started to realize that combat-related hearing loss was a significant issue among soldiers and that they needed specialists to deal with it. Danielson was initially planning on going into a different field altogether until a mentor from his fraternity contacted him about the need for audiologists.
“I thought this would be a good path for me, and it was certainly good timing as I was beginning my career at the same time as the audiology program in the Army was really getting going,” he said.
He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in audiology/speech pathology and after being commissioned, completed a Master of Science in audiology and later a Ph.D. in human development and communication sciences. During his military career, he served in multiple assignments, including a tour as the director of the Army Audiology and Speech Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
When Desert Storm was drawing to an end in 1991, soldiers were about to start pouring back into the U.S. First, though, they needed physical exams. Danielson led an initiative to develop mobile units in Saudi Arabia, conducting up to 1,200 hearing tests on some days.
“It was still a combat zone at this point. I had a pistol on my belt on one side and an otoscope on the other side,” he said. “But I guess you could say that was my ‘letter jacket’ year, because of what we were able to accomplish.”
After retiring from the Army in 2003, Danielson joined Baylor’s faculty and directs the Audiology and Hearing Conservation Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. In that role, he provides clinical, administrative and research support to NASA’s efforts to prevent noise-related hearing loss among active and former astronauts and other flight personnel, as well as ground-based NASA employees and contractors at JSC.
Astronauts and cosmonauts undergo audiological tests before and after space missions, and Danielson also monitors them with in-orbit hearing assessments on the International Space Station.
“It’s not just hearing loss that we’re concerned about, but we also want to ensure that noise does not interfere with communications and even sleep for those aboard the ISS,” Danielson said. “People often don’t appreciate acoustics to be a significant issue until I give them a demonstration of the noise levels on the space station that our astronauts deal with for many months at a time.”
Sometimes Danielson is surprised that he has not retired yet but he remains committed to his work. He says working at NASA and Baylor puts him “right where I want to be.”