|As far as most astronauts are concerned, the only person
more loathsome than a flight surgeon is a psychologist.
|[Aviation psychologists] were regarded as the modern and unusually
bat-brained version of the chaplain.
|"Son, you gotta
understand, the crews won't be happy until the last psychologist has
been strangled on the entrails of the last flight surgeon."
astronaut Joseph Kerwin, MD
A flight surgeon is a physician whose patients are pilots, astronauts, or others who fly. We restrict our discussion to the flight surgeons associated with the manned space program.
(Note: The word "surgeon" is, in this sense, a synonym for "doctor" -- it has nothing to do with operating rooms and scalpels. It's similar to the phrase "surgeon general.")
In the early days of the manned space program, the flight surgeons and other life scientists had many concerns about the ability of humans to function in outer space. Today, these concerns seem outlandish, quaint, and silly.
It takes a long time to recover from a bad start. Today, NASA's flight medicine community is still driven by unreasonable fears -- a legacy it inherited from its founders.
Space travel is not that physically demanding. When Deke Slayton returned from his Apollo earth-orbit flight, he observed that during the flight "I really wasn't doing anything my ninety-one-year-old Aunt Sadie couldn't have done" 3a.
Yet, the NASA medical community continues to apply unreasonable medical standards to those seeking careers as astronauts. (The Russians are even worse.) Some of the younger physicians are trying to change things, but the lock at the top will not soon loosen.
I still feel that the physical exams at Lovelace were an embarrassment, a degrading experience. I have said many times -- and meant it -- that it was a case of sick doctors working on well patients. I make the point in talks to medical associations. It was a rare, almost unheard of situation in which so many healthy individuals submitted to an array of tortures -- proctoscopies, barium-enhanced X-rays, psychological interrogation and so on.
The doctors at Lovelace were trying to establish a physiological and psychological baseline to be used in tests during a space flight. That was a valid exercise, I would admit. It might even have amounted to justification for our agony except for one thing -- it didn't work. According to Colonel William K. "Bill" Douglas, our family doctor in Mercury and our close friend, the punch-card computerized data obtained at the Lovelace Clinic could not be interpreted. The tests had to be redone after those of us who were selected joined the program. Much as I'd rather not knock a dead man, Randy Lovelace did a lousy job.
[This is reminiscent of Richard P. Feynman proving to his fraternity brothers that "urine does not run out of you just by gravity" by urinating while standing on his head. Source: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" Toronto: Bantam, 1986. 322 pp. ISBN 0-553-25649-1. Page 39.]
(Interestingly, White had previously consulted for the government. He evaluated President Eisenhower after Ike's heart attack. White privately advised him not to run for a second term, but Eisenhower did not follow this advice. Ike won re-election, and died eight years and many golf games after leaving office.)
a p.304 b p.68 c pp.112, 115
a p.60 b p.23 c p.192 d pp.192-193
a p.37 b p.49