Chapter 2

Exploring the Human Factor

(1948 - 1958)

[33] THE development of the large liquid-fueled rocket made the dazzling prospect of manned flight beyond Earth's atmosphere and into the vacuum of space increasingly feasible from the standpoint of propulsion. By 1950, however, only instrumented sounding rockets, fired to ever higher altitudes in both the United States and the Soviet Union, had reached into space before falling earthward. Although a number of these experimental shots carried living organisms - everything from fungus spores to monkeys in the United States, mainly dogs in the U.S.S.R. - the data acquired from telemetry and from occasional recovery of rocket nose cones had not shown conclusively how long organisms could live in space, or indeed whether man could survive at all outside the protective confines of his atmosphere. Scientists still were hesitant to predict how a human being would behave under conditions to be encountered in space flight. Thus while space flight became technologically practicable, physiologically and psychologically it remained an enigma.

In the early 1950s an acceleration of efforts in upper-atmospheric and space medical research accompanied the quickened pace of rocket development in this country and in the Soviet Union. During the next few years medical specialists, profiting from substantial progress in telemetering clinical data, learned a great deal about what a man could expect when he went into the forbidding arena of space.1 Much of the confidence with which the engineers of Project Mercury in 1958 approached the job of putting a man into orbit and recovering him stemmed from the findings of hundreds of studies made in previous years on the human factors in space flight.

Since the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was interested almost exclusively in the technology of flight, research in the medical problems of space flight, like aviation medicine in previous decades, was the province primarily of the military services and of some civilian research organizations receiving funds from the military. Of the three services, the United States Air Force, rich in background in aeromedical research and assuming that space medicine was but [34] an extension of aviation medicine, undertook most of the early inquiry into the psychophysiological problems of extra-atmospheric flight.

1 On advances in telemetry since the Second World War, see Wilfred J. Mayo-Wells, "The Origins of Space Telemetry," in Eugene M. Emme, ed., The History of Rocket Technology: Essays on Research, Development, and Utility (Detroit, 1964), 253-268; also published in Technology and Culture, IV (Fall 1963), 499-514.

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