The birth of Space Medicine

Space Medicine is a branch of medicine born in the 1950s to support human space exploration. At first it dealt with the immediate impacts of microgravity on human physiology. As flight durations increased, so did understanding of longer term effects due to microgravity, radiation, and isolation. Space Medicine specialists are interested in the effects of a flight on the human body, in the same way as specialists in Aeronautical Medicine, but out of the atmosphere, two additional problems arise: the weightlessness (the complete or near complete absence of the sensation of weight. This is also termed zero g-force and occurs in the absence of any contact forces upon objects, including the human body) and the high level cosmic rays (high-energy radiation, composed primarily of high-energy protons and atomic nuclei, they are originated either from the Sun or from outside of our Solar System; data from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have been interpreted as evidence that a significant fraction of primary cosmic rays originate from the supernova explosions of stars) to which astronauts are subjected. The main objective is to discover how well and for how long people can survive the extreme conditions in space, and how fast they can adapt to the Earth’s environment after returning from their voyage. Medical consequences such as possible blindness and bone loss have been associated with human spaceflight.

Exploit of the United States of America, Neil Armstrong’s spectacular lunar landing in 1969 also testified to the success of about a hundred German engineers and technicians who were then working for NASA. Little known at the time, most of these scientists were highly qualified and considered pioneers in their field. During the Second World War, they had already revolutionized, under the orders of Hitler, the techniques of armament and developed several missiles, including the famous V2 whose production cost the life to thousands of forced workers. The United States of America collaborated with specialists such as Hubertus Strughold, considered one of the forerunners of Space Medicine, the “Father of Space Medicine”. Physiologist, researcher and head of the Luftwaffe Institute for Aeronautical Medicine in Berlin, he participated in Nazi medical experiments before being exfiltrated to the United States of America through Operation Paperclip. He coined the term Space Medicine in 1948 while being professor at the Randolph Air Force Base School of Aviation Medicine (SAM) in Texas.

Hubertus Strughold

Hubertus Strughold (June 15, 1898 – September 25, 1986) was a German-born physiologist and prominent medical researcher. Beginning in 1935, he served as chief of aeromedical research for the Luftwaffe (the aerial warfare branch of the combined German Wehrmacht military forces during World War II), holding this position throughout World War II. Hubertus Strughold trained as a doctor in the 1920s in several German universities and later became a professor of physiology (which studies the role, functioning and mechanical, physical and biochemical organization of living organisms and their components: organs, tissues, cells and cell organelles. Physiology also studies the interactions between a living organism and its environment; in all biological disciplines, schematically defining levels of organization, physiology is a discipline close to histology, morphology and anatomy) and a research assistant to Maximilian von Frey (November 16, 1852 – January 25, 1932), an Austrian-German physiologist whose primary work in Leipzig in Germany dealt with the circulatory system; credited with developing an early prototype of a heart-lung machine, von Frey is remembered for his work involving cutaneous sensory mechanoreceptors. Strughold’s attention was, in the 1920s, increasingly drawn to the emerging science of Aviation Medicine and he collaborated with the famed World War I German Field Marshal and pilot Robert Ritter von Greim to study the effects of high-altitude flight on human biology. In 1928, Strughold travelled to the United States on a year-long research fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation. He conducted specialized studies into aviation medicine and human physiology at the University of Chicago and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He would also visit the medical laboratories at Harvard, Columbia and the Mayo Clinic. Strughold returned to Germany the following year and accepted a teaching position at the Würzburg Physiological Institute, eventually becoming an adjunct professor there in 1933. He would later serve as a professor of physiology at Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. In 1935, he became responsible for Aeronautical Medicine of the Luftwaffe, a position he maintained until the end of the Second World War. Strughold became acquainted socially with various high-ranking members of the Nazi regime and in April, 1935 was appointed Director of the Berlin-based Research Institute for Aviation Medicine, operating under the auspices of Hermann Göring’s Ministry of Aviation. Under Strughold’s leadership, the Institute grew to become Germany’s foremost aeromedical research establishment, pioneering the study of the medical effects of high-altitude and supersonic speed flight along with establishing the altitude chamber (a hypobaric chamber or altitude chamber, is used during aerospace or high terrestrial altitude research or training to simulate the effects of high altitude on the human body, especially hypoxia, low oxygen, and hypobaria, low ambient air pressure; some chambers also control for temperature and relative humidity) concept of time of useful consciousness (the amount of time an individual is able to perform flying duties efficiently in an environment of inadequate oxygen supply).

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Strughold’s organization was absorbed into the Luftwaffe. Working under the command of Luftwaffe Surgeon-General (Generaloberstabsarzt) Erich Hippke (7 March 1888 in Prökuls – 10 June 1969 in Bonn), Strughold attended in October 1942 a medical conference in Nuremberg at which SS physician Sigmund Rascher (12 February 1909 – 26 April 1945) delivered a presentation outlining various medical experiments he had conducted, in conjunction with the Luftwaffe, in which prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp were used as human test subjects. These experiments included physiological tests during which camp inmates were immersed in freezing water, placed in air pressure chambers and made to endure invasive surgical procedures without anaesthetic. Following the German defeat in May, 1945, Strughold claimed to Allied authorities that he had no knowledge of the atrocities committed at Dachau. In 1947 he was brought to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip and held a series of high-ranking medical positions with both the US Air Force and NASA. With another former Luftwaffe physician, Richard Lindenberg, Strughold was assigned to the US Air Force School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field near San Antonio, Texas.

Operation Paperclip and Space Medicine

Operation Paperclip, originally called Operation Overcast, is a secret program of the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency. It was conducted at the end of the Second World War by the United States of America Army Staff to exfiltrate and recruit (much U.S. effort was in 1945 focused on Saxony and Thuringia) nearly one thousand five hundred German scientists from the military-industrial complex of Nazi Germany to fight the USSR and recover the secret weapons of the Third Reich. In July 1945, a confidential memorandum from the US General Staff recommended that “these talented and rare minds, with extraordinary intellectual productivity, be placed at our service”, predicting a war against the USSR in 1952. The primary purpose for Operation Paperclip was U.S. military advantage in the Cold War and the Space Race. The Soviet Union for its part, recruited from the Soviet occupation zone of post-World War II Germany, for employment in the Soviet Union, more than two thousand German specialists with Operation Osoaviakhim, which took place on October 22, 1946. These scientists, like Arthur Rudolph, Wernher von Braun, Alexander Lippisch or off course, Hubertus Strughold, were brought back in the US and carried out research in various fields, including chemical weapons (Zyklon B), the use of psychotropic drugs, space conquest, ballistic missiles and long-range weapons (flying bombs V1 and V2). Far from assigning them to junior positions, the US Department of Defense gave them the lead on part of its research programs. They were posted to the bases of White Sands, New Mexico, and Fort Bliss, Texas. Thanks in part to the help of these scientists, the technological advance of the United States was considerable during the Cold War.

It was while at Randolph Field that Strughold began, with Dr. Heinz Haber (May 15, 1913 – February 13, 1990), a German physicist and science writer who primarily became famous for his TV programs and books about physics and environmental subjects, conducting some of the first research into the potential medical challenges posed by space travel. Strughold coined the terms Space Medicine and astrobiology to describe this area of study in 1948. The following year he was appointed as the first and only Professor of Space Medicine at the US Air Force’s newly established School of Aviation Medicine (SAM), one of the first institutions dedicated to conducting research on astrobiology and the so-called human factors associated with manned spaceflight. Under Strughold, the School of Aviation Medicine conducted pioneering studies on issues such as atmospheric control, the physical effects of weightlessness and the disruption of normal time cycles. In 1951, Strughold revolutionized existing notions concerning spaceflight when he co-authored the influential research paper Where Does Space Begin? in which he proposed that space was present in small gradations that grew as altitude levels increased, rather than existing in remote regions of the atmosphere. Strughold obtained US citizenship in 1956 and was appointed Chief Scientist of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Aerospace Medical Division in 1962. While at NASA, Strughold played a central role in designing the pressure suit and onboard life support systems used by both the Gemini and Apollo astronauts. He also directed the specialized training of the flight surgeons and medical staff of the Apollo program in advance of the planned mission to the Moon. Strughold retired from his position at NASA in 1968. Operation Paperclip, stopped in 1957 because of West Germany’s protests, was made public in 1973.

During his work on behalf of the Air Force and NASA, Strughold was the subject of three separate US government investigations into his suspected involvement in war crimes committed under the Nazis. Following his death in 1986, Strughold’s alleged connection to the Dachau experiments became more widely known following the release of US Army Intelligence documents from 1945 that listed him among those being sought as war criminals by US authorities. These revelations did significant damage to Strughold’s reputation and resulted in the revocation of various honours that had been bestowed upon him over the course of his career.