The founding of space medicine can be traced back several decades to earlier programs of aviation medicine, but it was not until World War II that serious consideration was really given to the possibility of manned space flight and thus, the need for space medicine. In 1948, at the USAF School of Aviation Medicine, General H. G. Armstrong organized a panel meeting on the topic of medical problems associated with space travel. Armstrong, Dr. Heinz Haber, and Professor Hubertus Strughold, later regarded to be the “father of space medicine”, all spoke at this meeting. This meeting is now considered to be the beginning of a new, specialized practice within the field of medicine: space medicine.
Thus, there followed an increase of interest in this new field. By 1950, the United States had completed a mission that launched two primates into space. Despite the fact that neither animal survived, valuable information was gathered from the mission. The needs of mammalian life forms in space were further understood, and the foundation of space medicine was laid down.
With the launch of Sputnik, the possibility of manned spaceflight grew and medical scientists from the National Academy of Sciences began to compile a list of physiological issues astronauts could expect to encounter, some of which proved to be a reality and others which did not. Soon, missions were planned to research these possible effects.
Project Mercury, initiated in 1958, was the first U.S. manned mission to space. Its goals were not only to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, but to investigate the ability of the human body to function in space. Project Gemini, initiated in 1961, extended the objectives of Project Mercury, assessing the feasibility of long-duration space flight and looking into the cardiovascular changes noted in Project Mercury. Project Apollo, the mission to land a man on the moon, revealed vestibular disturbances, weight loss, reduced exercise tolerance, decreased red cell mass, and other valuable medical discoveries.
The Skylab program was the first opportunity to study problems of habitability and physiological adaptation in space over long periods of time, pursuing continued research and possible measures to prevent the observed effects of the space environment on the human body. Later, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project played an important role in revealing a need for medical support to deal efficiently with the results of unforeseen hazards.
Similar biomedical discoveries were made overseas, with the Vostok, Soyuz, and Salyut programs, but the result was the same. Both the Americans and the Soviets (along with other nations) began to develop space medicine programs to maximize the health and performance of their astronauts. Even today, the field of space medicine continues to expand, as new discoveries are made with each subsequent mission.