Medical Aspects Of Training

On April 27, 1959, Project Mercury was assigned the highest national priority.  Two weeks later, on May 12, NASA announced a training program for the seven astronauts "to provide them with the technical knowledge to pilot the nation's manned orbital capsule."  By the end of the year the training of the new astronauts was well underway.  It had included, among other activities, a visit to Wright Air Development Center for general pressure-suit indoctrination and for a 3-day check of low-residue diets.  It included, too, a visit to the Naval Medical Research Institute at Bethesda, Md., for (1) a determination of basal metabolic rate, coetaneous blood flow rate, and sweat, rate at environmental temperatures of 95° F and 114° F and (2) familiarization with the effects of excessive carbon dioxide.

Skindiving training was carried out at the Navy's Little Creek Amphibious Base to simulate, the weightless state and to maintain physical fitness of the astronaut.  Acceleration studies with centrifuges were accomplished at Johnsville, Pa.  There were fittings for pressure suits at the contractor's (Goodrich) plant, and trips to Cape Canaveral and to Edwards Air Force Base (for briefings on the X-15 research airplane).  Future training would include, among other things, survival techniques, disorientation and communications training at Pensacola, Fla., and flights for practice in eating and drinking in the weightless state.23  Certain phases of the training are discussed in greater detail in subsequent chapters of the present study.

Meanwhile, on April 1, 1959, Dr. William K. Douglas, an Air Force career officer holding the rank of lieutenant colonel, was detailed for duty as the personal physician for the astronauts.24  A flight surgeon, he had been on duty with the Office of the Surgeon General, USAF.  He was to serve as the astronaut's physician through the next 3 years the normal tour of duty for an Air Force officer at which time he would be reassigned to Patrick Air Force Base for duty in the Office of the Assistant for Bioastronautics, Air Force Missile Test Center.  At that time he would be succeeded by Dr. Howard Minnows, a civilian physician; but now, in April 1959, Dr. Douglas was to begin a 3-year tour of duty unique in the annals of medical history.  His daily pattern of life would simulate that of the seven astronauts; many of the tests would also be taken by him; he was, in a very true sense of the word the eighth astronaut.

Through the next high-keyed months that were a prelude to the first suborbital manned flight in May 1961, the seven astronauts were to embark upon a compressed training schedule that required every ounce of their energy and dedication.  This training program was divided into six areas:  (1) Vehicle operations during launch, orbit, and reentry; (2) management of the on-board systems; (3) vehicle attitude control; (4) navigation; (5) communications; and (6) research and evaluation.25
From the medical viewpoint, this training program involved responsibility by the Space Task Group for monitoring and controlling the exposure of the individual astronaut to acceleration, weightlessness, heat, vibration, noise, and disorientation. These were medical problems that would be of concern to Dr. White and his aeromedical group, which now formed part of the Life Systems Division within STG, and particularly to Dr. Douglas.  Moreover, the astronaut must prepare himself personally for the stresses he would encounter,and to this end each one undertook a physical fitness program tailored to his own needs.  The physical fitness of the astronauts was also a primary concern of their personal physician.

23.  Project Mercury: Man-in-Space Program of the NASA, op. cit., pp. 40-49.  Interviews with Capt. C. P. Phoebus, USN, and Capt. Frank Vorhis. USN.

24.  Special Orders A-1157 (DAF) Apr. 1, 1959 (EDCSA). Special Orders AA-150, June 20, 1962, "Agreement Between the Department of Defense.  Army, Navy and Air Force and the NASA Concerning the Detailing of Military Personnel for Service with NASA," signed by T. Keith Glennan for NASA on Feb. 24, 1959, Donald A. Quarles for DOD on Apr. 3, 1959, Wilber M. Brucker for the Dept. of the Army on Mar. 12, 1959, Thomas S. Gates for the Dept. of the Navy on Mar. 12, 1959, James H. Douglas for the Dept. of the Air Force on Mar. 24, 1959, and approved by President Eisenhower Apr. 13, 1959.  This document would implement Sec. 203(b) (12) of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (P.L. 85-568).  The individual would be notified by NASA as soon as accepted.  The military departments would assign the members detailed to NASA to appropriate military units for purposes of providing rations, quarters, and medical treatment.  Normally the tour of duty with NASA would be 3 years, although in the case of ROTC graduates the tour could be shorter.  At the request of the NASA Administrator, military personnel could be recalled prior to the end of the normal tour of duty.  Likewise, the military department could recall any person detailed to NASA, should the Secretary so indicate.

25.  Robert B. Voas, "Project Mercury Astronaut Training Program," presented to the USAF Symposium on Psychophysiological Aspects of Space Flight in San Antonio, Tex., May 26-27, 1960.  See also Voas, "A Description of the Astronautís Task In Project Mercury," Human Factors. vol. 3, no. 3, Sept. 1961, pp. 149-165.  The reader is also referred to B. D. Goodman, "Psychological and Social Problems of Man in Space-A Literature Survey," ARS J., vol. 31, no. 7, July 1961, pp. 863-872.

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