History of Research in Space Biology and Biodynamics
[i] Since its inception a half-century ago, the United States Air Force has constantly operated higher and higher, faster and faster, until it has all but shattered the barriers of physical forces and alien physical environments which throughout all history have confined the activities of man to the immediate vicinity of the earth. With every advance in velocity and altitude resulting from new types of high-performance aircraft, rockets or satellites, the potential operational environment of the Air Force has expanded until today the actual area of operations extends to the very borders of interplanetary space and the immediate potential includes the vast central portion of the solar system. And with every advance of the environmental parameters, man encounters physical and biological hazards unique in his experience.
For many years, scientists of the Biodynamics and Space Biology Branches and more recently organized units of the Air Force Missile Development Center's Aeromedical Field Laboratory have sought to identify and understand the nature of these hazards, and to perfect protective devices and techniques for the benefit of man operating at high altitudes within the atmosphere and in the limitless space beyond. Because of the nature of its projects, the Laboratory occupies a unique position among the many other major units of the Center. It is one of the units working most directly toward man's ultimate conquest of space--and was actively working toward this objective even during the years that "space work" was in official Air Force and Congressional disfavor as "impractical."
In the study here presented, Dr. David Bushnell of the Center's Historical Office has carefully documented the history of this effort. In successive chapters, he has considered the many facets of these important contributions. First of all, he has examined the early beginnings of space biology research at what has since become the Air Force Missile Development Center--from 1946 until 1952. This is the period when the first such biological experiments of this program were attempted, when even rudimentary techniques for placing these experiments into the proper environment by means of balloons and rockets had to be devised, and when the program received its direction from a parent laboratory far distant from the scene, a laboratory in which an infant program of space biology could receive only a small amount of attention and possibly a smaller percentage of available research funds. The dawn of the second major period--when space biology research becomes part of the mission of the then newly created test, research and development center at Holloman Air Force Base--brings to a close this early portion of the history of such research at the Air Force Missile Development Center.
In his second chapter, Dr. Bushnell has recorded the scientific, technological and administrative victories and frustrations resulting in the major achievements of space biology research during the period 1953-1957. It is during this latter period that the fruit of earlier effort is harvested, and when, based upon these preliminary successes, bolder projects yield more significant and spectacular results.
Important technological advances, discussed in the initial portion of this chapter, contributed to outstanding accomplishments in two broad fields of space biology research--cosmic radiation and controlled artificial environments. Scientific and engineering progress in these latter fields is the main theme of this portion of the volume. The acquisition of this vital impersonal knowledge stemmed from dramatic events of high personal heroism as well as bold intellectual adventure, and frequent reference to these very human achievements has been a pleasant necessity.
The history of research in subgravity and zero-g, from 1948 through 1958, is the subject of Dr. Bushnell's third chapter. Weightlessness, the weird condition of subgravity which man had never before experienced and survived--except for the initial split-second of short-distance free fall--has become a major field of serious scientific research. Man now experiences this condition as his fast-climbing fighter flattens out to intercept a simulated enemy bomber, and he may soon experience it for long duration on multimonth interplanetary excursions. In recent years, man has gone to considerable expense and personal risk to fly Keplerian trajectories in high-performance aircraft in order to experience a force of less than normal gravity for fractions of a minute. Recently, a Soviet satellite exposed an animal subject to this condition for a period of several days. Gradually, a corpus of solid knowledge has formed as a result of these dramatic experiments, and man will go forth into space less inhibited by this psychophysical phenomenon than would otherwise have been the case.
[ii] Much of the important basic research in subgravity and zero-g has been performed by men of the Aeromedical Field Laboratory at the Air Force Missile Development Center. In this third chapter, Dr. Bushnell has traced the history of local contributions to this field of study. He has also placed this effort into the broader context of subgravity research accomplished elsewhere, especially in the United States, Argentina and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The next major subject of consideration is the history of research in escape physiology from 1953 through 1958. In the fourth chapter, Dr. Bushnell has documented those aspects of biodynamics research related to the punishing effects of windblast and the tremendous forces of abrupt deceleration encountered during emergency escape from high-mach aircraft. He has also mentioned the application of this experimentation to the effects of the magnitude and relatively long duration of g-loading experienced during sustained acceleration of multistage space vehicles. All the drama of human volunteer subjects taking part in rocket- and catapult-propelled sled experiments is a part of this colorful history of research at the Air Force Missile Development Center and elsewhere.
Scientists and technicians of the Aeromedical Field Laboratory have made important contributions in many other fields of biodynamics research. In addition to their achievements related to escape physiology, such as establishing the limits of human toleration to the windblast and deceleration forces experienced in emergency escape from high-performance aircraft, they have probed deeply into a variety of other biodynamics problems. Some of these concern aircraft and automotive crash forces, the stresses to be encountered in the atmospheric re-entry of manned space vehicles and satellites, and pure unapplied research in biodynamics designed to advance the sum of knowledge related to human reaction to various physical forces. These latter aspects of the history of such research at the Air Force Missile Development Center and at other important research establishments are the subject of Dr. Bushnell's fifth chapter.
All of these achievements in space biology and biodynamics--and the many other important accomplishments of the Aeromedical Field Laboratory staff--are the result of the application of knowledge, conviction and personal courage. They are also the result, however, of the administrative organization and direction of the laboratory's human resources, of the always-meager funds, and of the research projects themselves. For this reason, an understanding of the administrative successes and failures which have directed the Air Force Missile Development Center's conquests of the limitless vertical frontier are of value to any further planning related to man's invasion of outer space.
In the final chapter of this volume, Dr. Bushnell examines the administrative origin and development of the Aeromedical Field Laboratory. He has sought to identify the problems which have inhibited even greater accomplishment, and the methods of solution applied to those successfully resolved. More than this, he presents an objective account of the organization of the individual research projects, how they have been initiated, modified, expanded, combined, or cancelled.
On the whole, this volume would appear to have a special value of importance in addition to its detailed account of scientific endeavor in human factor research. Without much doubt, the Aeromedical Field Laboratory is nationally the best known of all the local organizations, despite its relatively modest quotas of funds and manpower. This relative notoriety is the result of several factors. Many of its leading figures, such as Colonel John Paul Stapp, Lieutenant Colonel David G. Simons and Dr. Harald J. von Beckh, are indeed colorful personalities. Another reason is that most of its activities can freely be written about or discussed without fear of security classification violations. Also, inherently present in so much of the laboratory's project workload is the element of human interest.
Yet the mere fact that the Aeromedical Field Laboratory is widely known and discussed does not mean that a balanced picture is always given. Basic progress in one area of research has often been overshadowed unduly by more sensational highlights in another. Nor has it always been fully realized to what extent present accomplishments are a logical outgrowth of programs that have been underway at Holloman Air Force Base in some cases since 1946.
For all of these reasons, the Historical Office has felt that a comprehensive history of biodynamics and space biology research at this installation is genuinely needed. The [iii] present volume by Dr. Bushnell is designed to fill that need. It attempts an accurate but not too technical account of actual project research, and at the same time seeks to demonstrate how the Aeromedical Field Laboratory and its truly significant achievements have been related to work carried on at other institutions within the same general fields of study.
James Stephen Hanrahan
Chief, Historical Office
December 1958