Physician cosmonauts

Of the seventeen scientist-astronauts selected by NASA, five were qualified Doctors of Medicine. In the Soviet programme, medical doctors have been selected at various times since the 1960s, although only three have flown in space. Given the Soviet programme of long duration space flights over the past three decades, it may seem strange that so few doctors have made it to orbit, but of course delays and changes to the programme, budgets, politics, medical issues and other more pressing events have all contributed. The sheer number of hours that cosmonauts require simply to maintain the station, let alone perform experiments, has also been a significant factor. A lack of willing test subjects among fellow crew members is also one reason why the longest flight by a medical cosmonaut included a significant period of self-experimentation by the doctor concerned. The background to the selection of doctors (and scientists) to the Soviet/Russian programme has been detailed in a companion volume in this series21 and is only summarised here.

Between 1961 and 2005, a total of ninety-nine Soviet and Russian cosmonauts flew into space, of which only five were doctors. The original plans included flying doctors (and scientists) on many missions, but this did not materialise. The original selection of four doctors was to support the Voskhod flight of October 1964. The four were Captain Boris Yegorov from the Military Medical Services, military doctor Aleksey Sorokin from the staff of TsPK (the cosmonaut training centre), Dr Boris Polyakov from the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems (IMBP) and Air Force test pilot and doctor, Vasiliy Lazarev. Yegorov flew the one-day mission with Lazarev as his back-up. Lazarev later joined the Air Force group in 1966 and completed his first two-day space flight in 1973. Two members of the medical staff of IMBP, Major of Medical Science Aleksandr Kisilyov and Dr. Yuri Senkevich, performed a five-day simulation of a Voskhod mission, along with Dr. Yevgeniy Ilyin who was also a Captain in the medical services. The reserve was Lt. Sergey Nikolayev of the medical services.

In 1972, a group of civilian cosmonauts was formed at IMBP and included Dr. Valeriy Polyakov, the group's first commander. He went on to fly two long duration missions on Mir totalling 16,312 hours (or 679.6 days) in space. There have been a further six selections to IMBP up to 2003 (and one special selection), but of the seventeen doctor candidates (including five female candidates in 1980), only two others have made it into orbit. In 1983, Oleg Atkov was recruited from Clinical Cardiology at the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences to fly as a cosmonaut researcher on a long duration flight to Salyut 7. This mission flew in 1984 and Atkov completed a 240-day flight. In 2000, Boris Morukov was a member of the American STS-106 crew that visited the ISS station for a twelve-day mission.

The desire to fly physician-cosmonauts on long duration missions was influenced by the need to obtain physical and mental data on the effects of long-term space flight on space station crews. In participating in ground simulations and monitoring the crew in orbit as well as flying on some of these missions, physicians were able to obtain data that could be used to develop new equipment, procedures and countermeasures. These could then support the first expeditions to Mars and the sustained occupation of both the Moon and the Red Planet. With the expansion of ISS operations after its construction is completed in 2010, there should be opportunities for Russian doctor-cosmonauts to continue the work begun on Salyut 7 and Mir. Whether that option is taken up remains to be seen.

ISS offers an excellent resource to evaluate and develop new procedures in dedicated facilities. In the 1980s one of the ideas, based on a study called Medilab, was for a specialised module attached to Mir 2. This would have been a biotechnology module in which more focused biomedical research would have taken place, presumably by doctor-cosmonauts or medical technicians assigned to a space station crew. Of course, Mir 2 was not funded and some its hardware was reassigned to the ISS programme, although the biotechnology module was not one of the ideas taken up.

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