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This Month in AFMS History: First Space Medicine Symposium

U.S. Air Force Aeromedical Laboratory scientists test a prone-position “pilot bed,” on February 3, 1949. AFRL designed the bed to relieve the gravitational stress on pilots, as part of research to solve medical challenges presented by space flight. (U.S Air Force photo)

U.S. Air Force Aeromedical Laboratory scientists test a prone-position “pilot bed,” on February 3, 1949. AFRL designed the bed to relieve the gravitational stress on pilots, as part of research to solve medical challenges presented by space flight. (U.S Air Force photo)

The rocket-powered Bell X-1 experimental aircraft. Pilots who flew the X-1 experienced weightlessness for a few seconds when they completed a climb. (NASA photo)

The rocket-powered Bell X-1 experimental aircraft. Pilots who flew the X-1 experienced weightlessness for a few seconds when they completed a climb. (NASA photo)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- On November 12, 1948, Air Force Brig. Gen. Harry Armstrong, commandant of the School of Aviation at Randolph Field, Texas, convened the first Air Force symposium on space medicine.

Eleven scientists, doctors, and military officers gathered to discuss their research and findings on aeromedical problems found in space flight. This groundbreaking symposium helped lay groundwork for future space travel, culminating in humanity walking on the Moon.

Armstrong hosted the event, and picked astrophysicist Heinz Haber to give the opening remarks. Haber, a former German scientist who came to the United States after World War II as part of Operation Paperclip, presented information to give the assembled medical professionals a sense of what the human body would have to endure during space flight. His remarks explained many of the basic principles of rocket propulsion and celestial mechanics.

The audience, all scientific professionals, considered Haber’s information, “exotic—and often baffling,” according to Green Payton, an historian with the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine.

Haber lectured on the high speeds needed to achieve and maintain orbit, some 24,985 miles per hour. But he went further, explaining escape velocity, the speeds needed to depart the Earth, and the possibility of orbiting the Sun. He also explained the weightlessness of space, something new to everyone except a handful of pilots who had experienced it for a few seconds in the Bell X-1 rocket craft at the top of its climb, before dropping back into the atmosphere.

The symposium’s panels then discussed various topics related to health and space, including the effects of solar and cosmic radiation, the flyer’s orientation in space, temperature variations, the risk of meteor collisions, gas pressures and compositions within a spacecraft, astronaut isolation and confinement, and planetary environments other than Earth. The collective works encapsulated the state of space science and assessed the medical challenges of manned space travel.

The symposium confirmed to Armstrong that space medicine needed a firm foundation to provide safety for future astronauts. On the success of the symposium, Armstrong oversaw the creation of the U.S. Air Force’s Department of Space Medicine three months later.
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