Wednesday’s Book Review: “Testing the Limits: Aviation Medicine and the Origins of Manned Space Flight”

Testing the Limits: Aviation Medicine and the Origins of Manned Space Flight. By Maura Phillips Mackowski. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. Centennial of Flight Series.

Maura Phillips Mackowski has written a very interesting, readable, and significant book that I am proud to have published in the Centennial of Flight Series that I edited for Texas A&M University Press. This very fine book, based on Mackowski’s Ph.D. dissertation, describes how the United States and Germany became the leaders in aviation medicine, and how those two strains of scientific research, merged after World War II—with some significant implications from Nazi research on concentration camp prisoners—to create the modern aerospace medicine discipline.

This book is significant for three main reasons. First, the birth of aerospace medicine as a discipline was a very important development. It made possible human movement into the upper atmosphere and eventually into space. The human body is a very fragile biological system that cannot take even minor changes in pressure, oxygen, temperature, speed, gravity, and the like. The ability to survive in places where humans do not normally reside is has proven remarkably difficult and we still don’t do it very well. Without the rise of aerospace medicine, however, we would not be able to do so at all. Aerospace medicine emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as a means of ensuring that pilots could fly in a variety of physical settings. The development of technologies—oxygen masks, goggles, heated suits, gravity suits, pressure suits, etc.—made it possible to fly higher and faster, and ultimately into space. This work is the first systematic attempt to relate the history of this important effort.

Second, Testing the Limits is an excellent reading experience. The author is a former journalist who then went back to Arizona State University and earned a Ph.D. in history. She brings to the project a verve and style that let’s one sail through the manuscript. It is, in essence, an important story well-told. She also understands the tricks of writing—scene setting, chapter linkages, characterization, transitions, etc.—as well as the general means of hooking and keeping a reader.

Third, there are significant analyses of little known and quite controversial, topics. One that is most important relates to the incorporation of former Nazi biomedical researchers into the American aerospace medicine arena after World War II. Particularly Hubertus Strughold, head of the Third Reich’s Institute of Aviation Medicine during the World War II, could be considered a war criminal. He subjected concentration camp inmates to abuse and torture, thinly disguised as aerospace medicine “experiments.”

Strughold, like the more famous Wernher von Braun, came to the United States and was recognized as one of the pioneers in his field. The New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo even inducted him into its space hall of fame. This work goes far toward reconsidering his place in the history of aerospace medicine.

Likewise, the Testing the Limits does an excellent job of dealing with the American giant in the field, Randy Lovelace, whose clinic in Albuquerque was a center for research into the effects of flight on the human body. The Lovelace Clinic served as the critical testing area for the Mercury astronauts, and for a series of women who underwent those same tests in 1960. Many of those women believed they were destined to become astronauts as well, and one of them (Jerrie Cobb) continued to lobby for a shuttle flight for many years. All of this forms a major part of the book.

In sum, this work offers an exceptional analysis of an important but little-known story.

This entry was posted in aeronautics, Apollo, aviation, History, Lunar Exploration, Science, Space, World War II and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Testing the Limits: Aviation Medicine and the Origins of Manned Space Flight”

  1. Spacegary says:

    Given Felix Baumgartner’s upcoming jump from near space this book on Aviation medicine is very timely. Thanks for the heads up.


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