Aerospace Medicine, Air Force

By: Edward B. Alcott

Type: General Entry

Published: July 1, 1995

Updated: July 29, 2020

Aerospace medicine is a medical specialty that deals with ways to adapt to the stresses experienced by those who fly far from the earth, including sustained acceleration, weightlessness, decompression sickness, temperature extremes, noise, vibration, confinement, and radiation. After the Wright brothers pioneered airplane flights in 1903, the Signal Corps established an Aeronautical Division (1907) to supervise all matters pertaining to "air machines." In 1917 Theodore Charles Lyster became the first chief surgeon, Aviation Section, Signal Corps, United States Army. Lyster guided the development of aviation medicine during World War I, including the foundation of the Air Service Medical Research Laboratory at Hazelhurst, New York (1918). This laboratory evolved into a training academy for flight surgeons and was renamed the School of Aviation Medicine in the same year that Brooks Field (later Brooks Air Force Base) in San Antonio became a center for primary flight training in the army (1922). In 1926 the army transferred the School of Aviation Medicine to Brooks, where it remained for five years. The SAM was then moved to Randolph Field (later Randolph Air Force Base), then back to Brooks in 1959. Harry G. Armstrong, another pioneer in aviation medicine, commanded SAM between 1946 and 1949. Armstrong had participated in the establishment of the Aeromedical Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, in 1935. He studied physiological problems of flight and developed ways to prevent them. He and others developed partial-pressure and full-pressure suits, keys to the beginnings of aerospace medicine. When Charles Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier in October 1947, he wore a T-1 partial-pressure suit developed by the Aeromedical Laboratory.

When the United States Air Force became an independent agency in 1947, a separate Medical Service was established. Maj. Gen. Malcolm C. Grow and Maj. Gen. Harry Armstrong became the first and second USAF surgeons general. Armstrong believed that a medical center must embrace all fields of science related to human biology and medicine, and that it should have close association with other civilian and military scientific, engineering, and medical-research centers. A new Aerospace Medical Center opened at Brooks AFB in 1959. The center brought together the School of Aviation Medicine (transferred from Randolph AFB), the Lackland Hospital and the Air Force Epidemiology Laboratory (both from Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio), and the Medical Service School from Gunter AFB, Alabama. The center completed some research projects for NASA before it was incorporated into a newly established Aerospace Medical Division at Brooks in 1961. Many experiments were conducted before the Mercury series-the first United States manned space flights. Many of the human subjects were USAF basic trainees who volunteered for pressure-chamber, isolation, and weightlessness studies. One of the first was Airman Donald R. Farrell, a finance specialist stationed at Randolph AFB, Texas. In 1958 he volunteered to test the "space cabin simulator" that the SAM had received in 1954. Much was learned from his seven-day stay in a tiny cabin, and Farrell was honored by the presence of Lyndon B. Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, when he emerged on February 16, 1958.

Officials wanted the new Aerospace Medical Center to expand its traditional role in flight medicine. For four decades, doctors and scientists had addressed the medical needs of pilots and astronauts. Now they hoped that the center would become the single agency for studies in the life sciences and aerospace medicine. Under the direction of Lt. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine (the renamed School of Aviation Medicine), much of the former Aerospace Medical Center, and several other laboratories became the Aerospace Medical Division in 1961. AMD commanded virtually all of the USAF facilities for aerospace medical-research development and testing; postgraduate training of medical officers, nurses, and technicians in aerospace medicine and related specialties; and clinical services for flyers afflicted with aerospace disorders. In August 1962 the Department of Defense and NASA agreed that NASA would assume responsibility for all of the United States space bioscience programs, including animal flights. NASA would continue to need support from the air force, since the military supplied launch vehicles, experiments, and research animals. Since NASA managed the only operational programs for the support of man in space, control of nearly all research in manned space flight and aerospace medicine was lifted from the USAF. Nevertheless, AMD continued to work with NASA in several ways. AMD's hospital facilities were used by the astronauts and their families. Contracts were given to AMD to test pure-oxygen atmospheres and the Gemini-Apollo pressure suit. One program of the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine graduated thirty-nine veterinarians who specialized in the care of animals used in aerospace research. USAFSAM began courses in Aerospace Nursing at Cape Kennedy, Florida, in July 1965. In 1963, AMD began several studies associated with the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the first United States space-laboratory program assigned to the USAF. Because of a need to reduce defense spending, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program was canceled in 1969, but AMD continued with several aerospace-research projects.

Studies were conducted on nuclear survivability, decompression, sustained accelerative forces, and cardiographic parameters for NASA's space-shuttle system. Other studies involved the effects of ionizing radiation and the effects of protons on nonhuman primates. Some of the first experiments in the space-shuttle launches of the early 1980s involved tests in visual functions, since astronauts had commented on both increased and decreased ability to see in space. A short-arm centrifuge was studied as a way to prevent the physiological deconditioning caused by weightlessness in space. The current protective measures employed in the shuttle operations evolved directly from twenty years of joint studies by NASA and USAFSAM on altitude-decompression sickness. Beginning in 1991 all astronauts were trained for G exposure at USAFSAM and a crew reentry anti-G suit was developed at the school. See also AEROSPACE MEDICINE, LYNDON B. JOHNSON SPACE CENTER.

Aerospace Medicine (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1961; 2d. ed., 1971). Edward B. Alcott and Robert C. Williford, Aerospace Medical Division: Twenty-Five Years of Excellence, 1961–1986 (San Antonio: Aerospace Medical Division, Brooks Air Force Base, 1986). Harry G. Armstrong, Principles and Practice of Aviation Medicine (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1939). Charles A. Berry, "The Beginnings of Space Medicine," Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine 57 (October 1986).

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July 1, 1995
July 29, 2020

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