Monday, November 11, 2013

A Jones for MOL #10: Shadow MOL Men (Part 2)—the Bohannon Hypothesis

Gen. Richard Leland Bohannon,
in an Associated Press wire photo
released in Feb. 1964, after he became
Surgeon General of the U.S. Air Force. 
In 1964 the new Surgeon General of the U.S. Air Force, Lt. Gen. Richard Bohannon, arranged for two Air Force flight surgeons (ref. 1) per year to train as jet pilots in hopes that some of them would become astronauts aboard the planned military Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). His further expectations are not available for analysis; a Freedom of Information request to the Air Force did not produce any relevant information. When the MOL program ended without any flights just five years later, 17 test pilots had been selected as military astronauts, but no physicians. Enthusiasm for the pilot physician program waned among Air Force leadership soon thereafter (ref. 2).

Dr. Bohannon’s efforts were consistent with the standards of the mid-1960s. When the “other” American space program, NASA, selected non-pilot specialists such as physicists, astronomers, geologists and physicians to increase the scientific productivity of planned space station and lunar exploration missions, their astronaut managers insisted that any who were not already qualified jet pilots be sent through Air Force pilot training before reporting for space duty (ref. 3). These managers were mostly either test pilots or aerospace engineers accustomed to working with test pilots, and they believed pilot training provided a minimum common background and necessary skills to all who would be astronauts.

Despite their impressive overall credentials, not all astronauts come to NASA with operational skills and experience. Since the mid-1960s, NASA astronauts have primarily used the T-38N jet (the “N” identifies NASA’s modified version of the Air Force T-38 trainer) to combine “rapid response training” with the skills, cognitive control and urgency of life and death decisions that is considered critical in the professional astronaut corps. Among all of the simulators and training systems used by astronauts, this was (and is) the only one providing an environment including acceleration and G-loads, confined stressful physical environments, and exposure to a realistic psychological stress environment in which participants cannot always walk away from their mistakes. Jet aircraft training has instilled and expanded candidates’ capability and competence in performing in a fast-paced spaceflight environment (ref. 4).

Four physicians selected by NASA as astronauts in 1965 and 1967 dutifully entered flight training, although one left NASA in short order for personal reasons. On graduation they joined a fifth physician-astronaut who was already a qualified jet pilot before coming to NASA (ref. 3). Together they embodied Dr. Bohannon’s vision of pilot-physicians eligible for space missions—but just not in the program he originally intended.

By 1978, when NASA next recruited physicians as professional astronauts, it no longer required pilot training for all astronauts. The Space Shuttle era promised flights of such mild conditions that non-pilots could successfully participate. In fact, the front seat in NASA’s two-seat T-38 jets was eventually limited to just highly-qualified test pilots, possibly for insurance purposes, so even the physicians NASA had earlier insisted become jet pilots were no longer eligible to be “first pilot.” However, even today, career astronauts who are not military pilots still maintain proficiency as back-seat crewmembers, doing everything except the actual piloting.

Twenty-eight physicians have been chosen as professional NASA astronauts from 1965 to 2013, including one who has only just been selected and is not yet eligible for spaceflight and another who left NASA before becoming eligible for spaceflight assignment (ref. 5). Of the remaining 26, 7 have been jet qualified, including 4 who were pilots before their selection by NASA. One physician astronaut was never assigned to a flight and is not currently on the active roster. Another one has been assigned and is now training for his first flight. Two others flew in space and received additional flight assignments but were unable to complete them.

Interestingly, all four of the physicians who arrived at NASA as qualified jet pilots were from the Navy or its sister service the Marine Corps, not the Air Force. Three of them were products of the Navy’s physician-pilot “dual-designator” program (ref. 6), similar to the Air Force pilot-physician program; the fourth was a Vietnam-era Marine Corps aviator who attended medical school after leaving the service. In fact, two of them had even been through test pilot school (ref. 7), which qualified them to continue piloting NASA’s training jets even when their colleagues lost that privilege. The Air Force had apparently considered sending their pilot-physicians to test pilot school, probably to increase their attractiveness as military astronauts, but it was rejected as an unnecessary complexity and delay (ref. 8). Individual pilot-physicians may have applied on their own initiative, as did these two Navy pilot-physicians, but apparently none were successful.

When he arranged for two pilot training slots per year for Air Force flight surgeons, Dr. Bohannon essentially posed a hypothesis: assuming that pilot-trained physicians will be important in developing means to protect military astronauts from the deleterious effects of long-duration spaceflight, are they likely to be more acceptable to spaceflight managers who select pilots to be astronauts, and thus more likely to fly on space missions? As I described previously, renowned test pilot General Chuck Yeager oversaw the selection of the military astronauts, who were all graduates of the test pilot school under his command.

Quantitative analysis in this case is not straight-forward. The independent variable is whether or not the astronaut was a military-trained pilot. Admittedly, many non-pilot astronauts earn ratings as private or commercial pilots, and those who had been military flight surgeons acquired considerable experience in the back seat of jets (ref. 9). Thus the distinction between pilot and non-pilot physicians is not always distinct. But for the purposes of this discussion, I am considering only those who graduated from military flight training, either before or during their NASA careers. This was the criterion invoked by Dr. Bohannon, since his candidates were already Air Force flight surgeons and still he pushed for them to become trained as pilots.

Two dependent variables can be evaluated. The most obvious is actual spaceflight. Perhaps a more informative variable is flight assignment. The state of being a physician-astronaut is not an intrinsic characteristic that independently results in a spaceflight. Such assignments are made by the astronaut’s superiors. Even if an assignment does not result in a flight, it reflects the value of the pilot qualification in improving the attractiveness of a physician-astronaut for that flight.


# physician-astronauts
# flights (total)
average # flights
# flight assignments (total)
average # assignments
To date, 26 of the 28 professional NASA physician-astronauts have been eligible for assignment to spaceflight during their active careers. Those meeting the pilot criterion received an average of 2.4 (range 1 to 6) assignments and made an average of 2.1 (range 1 to 6) flights, slightly exceeding the average of 1.7 (range 0 to 5) flights and assignments for their non-pilot counterparts. Rigorous statistical analysis is not appropriate in this case; it is sufficient for our purposes that all ratios round to the same whole integer: two spaceflight assignments per physician astronaut, regardless of pilot-training.

NASA’s experience vis-à-vis the contribution of piloting qualifications to the success of physician astronauts is informative. It is not obvious that qualification as a first pilot in jet aircraft has led to more success in spaceflight, as judged by flight assignments. However, from personal observation, all physician-astronauts performed as well in spaceflight as Dr. Bohannon had expected of his candidates in the 1960s. This speaks of the character of people who succeed as astronauts: many of them are able to undertake more than one complex career path and succeed, including such diverse skills as medicine and the engineering-intense test pilot training.

Earlier, I noted that NASA was the “other” American space program in regards to physician-astronauts. In fact, NASA has flown additional physicians on the Space Shuttle, from Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia as well as America. Except for the Americans, they were almost always professional astronauts in their national astronaut corps. Many were private and commercial pilots or had considerable experience as non-pilot crewmembers aboard aircraft (ref. 9). However, none of them met the Bohannon criterion of pilot-physicians.

Finally, there are still “other” space programs actively flying astronauts, namely the Russian and Chinese. So far, there have not been any Chinese physician astronauts flown or even selected for training.


# physician-cosmonauts
# spaceflights
average # flights
The Russian and former Soviet space program has launched seven physician-cosmonauts a total of 11 times (two flew twice and another one flew three times) (ref. 3, 10, 11, 12). Two of them met the Bohannon criterion, and one became a military test pilot after his medical training. A similar analysis can be performed as for NASA, except the dependent variable must be only actual flight and not assignment, given the vagaries of flight assignments during the Soviet era. In this case, there appears to be a disadvantage to being a non-pilot physician cosmonaut, because they have not been part of the same dominant cosmonaut cadre formed in 2011 as the pilots and engineers. Therefore, they were unlikely to have had the same eligibility and access to flight assignments. One of the non-pilots is currently making his first flight so the number of spaceflights by non-pilot physician cosmonauts would increase if he flies again, but their ratio will not soon approach that of the pilot-physician cosmonauts. The test pilot-physician left medicine completely before becoming a cosmonaut and devoted himself to aviation, so he was a pilot-physician in name only, and is now retired.

American (NASA)
Pilot physicians
 Thus, in the two populations of astronauts for which data are available, the trend is for pilot-physicians to be selected at a higher rate than non-pilot physicians. The distinction is slightly stronger in the Soviet-Russian case, but no statistical analysis seems appropriate given the small and uneven sample populations.

Professional astronauts throughout the histories of NASA and other space agencies have necessarily been generalists in the fields of spaceflight engineering and science. Physicians have skills that are beneficial during research and clinical care episodes, but those are not the majority of in-flight activities on space missions to date. Additional qualification as jet pilots seems not to have had a major bearing on the success of physicians as astronauts, probably due to the general preparation and specific training they have all received for their missions, and the highly integrated nature of space missions to date.

In conclusion, the hypothesis I have attributed to Dr. Bohannon has been tested in two separate space programs over the four decades since he conceived it. The answer so far seems to be: maybe. In the U.S. space program, there is no meaningful difference in the flight-assignment rate, and thus programmatic acceptability, of pilot-physicians over non-pilot physicians. In the Soviet-then-Russian program, there does appear to be a slight numeric advantage to being a pilot-physician, but the numbers are so small and confounded as to be unreliable. My assessment is that the null hypothesis cannot be rejected: there is no meaningful difference in the crew-assignment frequency of one group over the other. This indicates that both groups are viewed as equally important in constituting space crews.

Dr. Bohannon identified a need for clinical and biomedical expertise in early astronaut crew composition, which was already biased in the direction of operations and away from utilization. He acted to remedy that weakness within the constraints of his time and situation. His foresight and initiative helped make possible the diversity of disciplines now considered necessary for successful space missions and the capacity of modern astronauts to embody those disciplines.

  1. For a brief but helpful overview of this military medical specialty, see “Flight surgeon” at (retrieved Nov. 3, 2013).
  2. Mapes, P.B. “The history of the United States Air Force Pilot-Physician Program,” Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine 62:75-80, 1991; (confirmed Nov. 2, 2013).
  3. Shayler, David J., and Colin Burgess, NASA’s Scientist-Astronauts, Springer-Praxis Publishing, Chichester, UK, 2007.
  4. National Research Council, Committee on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations, Preparing for the High Frontier: The Role and Training of NASA Astronauts in the Post- Space Shuttle Era, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2011, pp. 70-78, (retrieved Nov. 1, 2013).
  5. “Astronaut Biographies,” (retrieved Nov. 2, 2013).
  6. Kelly, G.F. “The history of the United States Navy flight surgeon/naval aviator program,” Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine 69:311-6, 1998.
  7. One of them, Manley L. Carter, Jr., is documented in United States Navy Test Pilot School, Historical narrative and class information, Supplement for years 1984 to 1992, Fishergate Publishing Co., Annapolis, MD, 1992.
  8. Koritz, T.F., “USAF Pilot/Physician Program: History, Current Program, and Proposals for the Future,” USAFSAM-TP-89-9, July 1989, specifically comments of Dr. Burt Rowen, p. 24, (retrieved Jan. 7, 2013).
  9. National Research Council, 2011, pp. 70-78.
  10. Vlassov, Vasiliy, and Igor Ushakov, “Soviet Pilot-Physician Program,” Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine 70:713-6, 1999.
  11. Hooper, Gordon R., The Soviet Cosmonaut Team, Volume 2: Cosmonaut Biographies, 2nd ed., GRH Publications, Gunton, England, 1990. 
  12. McHale, Suzy, “RuSpace, Cosmonaut Group,” (retrieved Nov. 2, 2013).

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Tales of Immersion 1: How the Soviets Did Not Invent Neutral Buoyancy and Then Did Not Show the Chinese How to Use it to Fake a Spacewalk.

The past four months since my last blog entry have been filled with travel and work commitments. Some of these have fed my interest in the history of underwater neutral buoyancy to simulate weightlessness for spaceflight training and procedures development, usually for “extravehicular activity” (“EVA” in NASA-ese), also called “space walks.”  That is my "other" current recreational research interest, along with the biomedical aspects of the defunct Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program (see most of my recent posts).

ESA Neutral Buoyancy Facility, Cologne, Germany, July 2013.
(Photo and composite by author.)
In July, I attended the 19th Humans in Space Symposium of the International Academy of Astronautics, in Cologne, Germany. This included a visit to the German space agency’s new biomedical research facility, “:envihab” (the creative spelling and punctuation are a branding and marketing tactic). Next door is the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) European Astronaut Center, which houses ESA’s Neutral Buoyancy Facility, which I was able to see only through a security window.

2nd annual reunion of ERA divers, with spouses and admirers,
August 2013. Mattingly is in front row, near center, in white shorts.
(Photo by author.)
In mid-August, my wife and I flew into Baltimore and then drove east to Ocean Pines for the second annual reunion of the divers of Environmental Research Associates (ERA) at the home of its founder, neutral buoyancy pioneer Sam Mattingly. Sam also invited Michael Neufeld, a curator and historian from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, who is also interested in the history of ERA.

My recreational research into the history of neutral buoyancy for spaceflight purposes comprised two lectures to the JSC Spacesuit Knowledge Capture Series in August and September on ERA and the list of other early adopters who are less well-known in part because they were not successful in the Darwinian sense in competing with ERA.

All or parts of those lectures, including the list, will appear in my blog posts, starting with this one.
China Astronaut Training Center neutral buoyancy facility.
(Photo reproduced from China TV.)
I also gained some insights on the history of neutral buoyancy while at the 64th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Beijing, in September. I wasn't able to take any of the technical tours this time (as I did in 2007 on my only previous visit) so I didn't get to see the Chinese neutral buoyancy facility (which may or may not have been on the tours this year, but was not open for tours in 2007). That facility was probably in use back then, because Zhai Zhigang has been shown training in it before he performed the first Chinese EVA from Shenzhou 7 in September 2008 (1).

Space Hoax Claimed

An anti-regime website in Hong Kong insisted that the first and so far only Chinese spacewalk was faked underwater (2). Evidence cited includes so-called “bubbles,” which the “deniers” specifically deny are dust particles and left over bits of the spacecraft preparation process, commonly seen escaping from any spacecraft open to vacuum.

Chinese astronaut training for EVA underwater (left) and in spaceflight (right).
(Photos from China TV, composite by author.)
This claim of a Chinese hoax brings together three elements required for a hoax rebuttal: (1) the claim itself, (2) imagery from the purportedly actual event, and (3) imagery depicting the very hoax that is claimed, provided by the party being accused of perpetrating the hoax. A casual comparison of the very clear in-flight imagery provided by the Chinese (element 2) and of their own well-publicized underwater training (element 3) demonstrates the visual distinctiveness of the two elements, and thus the falseness of the hoax claim.

This hoax claim has been thoroughly debunked by serious skeptics with much greater credibility than I (3). But it is an echo of a similar claim four decades ago. In the 1960s, Lloyd Mallan, who was among the first “space deniers,” refused to credit any of the Soviet Union’s early successes in space. He said that the world's first spacewalk by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and the rest of the Soviet space program were faked, finding it more credible that they were hoaxes (4). Specifically, he posited that footage of Leonov’s accomplishment was actually filmed on Earth underwater.

Russia's Space Hoax, Lloyd Mallan, 1966.

In 1975, Mallan's body of work was disputed by James Oberg, one of the foremost authorities on Soviet and Russian space history (5). However, Oberg agreed with one of Mallan's premises, that the Soviet photographic documentation of Leonov's excursion included footage made underwater, substituting neutral buoyancy for weightlessness: “Mallan is right when he says that most of the Leonov spacewalk movies are not genuine. They are shots underwater, shots from wire-suspension training sets, shots in simulations and practices. The Russians were often careless in describing the sources of these films. The spacewalk itself was real.”

I am, of course, no expert on cosmonaut training techniques or photographic trickery, but my casual review of the imagery does not support that hypothesis. Oberg's criticisms of the film's quality, editing and presentation may be true, but I don't believe water immersion was involved.

No Neutral Buoyancy for Leonov

Leonov EVA imagery as reproduced from Soviet -based sources on Internet.
If the hoax claim was correct, then any such footage would establish the earliest documented use of water immersion by any astronaut or cosmonaut for mission simulation purposes. But there is no strong evidence for an entity from the Soviet Union to be on my list of early practitioners of neutral buoyancy for weightlessness simulation. I covered the early Soviet use of neutral buoyancy in just two PowerPoint charts in my second lecture because the topic is not well documented in available source material. Their insistence on secrecy and ambiguity left an ambiguous record and provided opportunities for misunderstanding and even misrepresentation of their own legitimate efforts, as Mallan demonstrated.

In fact, there is no non-US entity among the first ten or more independent practitioners on my list. This does not mean there were none in existence—only that I have not yet found adequate evidence, possibly because my source material is dominated by English-language documents from the US.

Russian Spacesuits, Abramov and Skoog, 2003
Russian institutions, like their US counterparts, had long used water tanks (which the Russians called “hydrolaboratories”) for survival equipment testing and aircrew training, including space-suited activities. For example, Zvezda, the preeminent manufacturer of Soviet aerospace life support systems (6), had tested the Vostok SK-1 spacesuit with its integral flotation collar in a water tank in 1960, according to Isaak Abramov, a spacesuit designer at Zvezda, and Ingemar Skoog, a German spacesuit expert, writing in Russian Spacesuits (7), the definitive source for such information.  

Leonov, like his American contemporaries, prepared for the world’s first EVA (“ВЫХОД” in Russian, transliterated as “vykhod” and meaning “exit”—as seen on signs in Moscow subway stations) in 1965 using the established means. He practiced during brief weightlessness in parabolic airplane flights on the Tu-104—he wrote that he had done 200 parabolas (8) which probably required five to ten separate airplane flights—and in a vacuum chamber, but he did not mention any EVA training underwater (9). Abramov and Skoog explicitly stated that hydrolab testing had not been introduced at that time (10).

NASA’s decision to adopt neutral buoyancy using water immersion for astronaut training came in late 1966, a year and a half after Leonov’s flight, and after three of the five EVA missions in the Gemini program (and too late to help the fourth), and especially after significant internal NASA debate. The decision was a desperate response to the realization that only one flight remained in the Gemini program to demonstrate sufficient competence in EVA to undertake the ambitious plans of Apollo and follow-on programs, and that the other techniques used to date—parabolic flight, full-suspension and vacuum chambers—had not been adequate (11).

But there is no evidence that Zvezda or anyone else in the Soviet Union was using water immersion to simulate the weightlessness a suited cosmonaut would encounter in spaceflight before 1968.

According to Abramov and Skoog, by 1968 Zvezda had developed and was testing the Orlan space suit for the non-landing cosmonaut on planned two-man Soviet lunar missions. The Orlan and its wearer were to remain in lunar orbit while the other cosmonaut descended to the Moon’s surface wearing a slightly different suit called Krechet-94 (12). Underwater testing of a specially modified Orlan required weights to achieve neutral buoyancy, a hoist for water immersion and emersion, and a simplified life support backpack relying on pool-side pressurization, venting and cooling systems (13). Similar testing of the Krechet-94 would be a logical inference, but was notably absent in the descriptions by Abramov and Skoog.

Soviet Neutral Buoyancy in 1968?

In August 1968, at the United Nations Conference on Exploration and the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna, Leonov presented a paper that emphasized the similarity between the experiences of Soviet astronauts and of crews of deep-sea exploratory craft. (The paper was originally written for Yuri Gagarin, who had died in a training jet crash in March.) Leonov said, cryptically, that “all actions taken in Soviet space vehicles were tried first in underwater craft” (14). Now there is a sentence with enough ambiguity to include a large range of possibilities! Did this mean that everything a cosmonaut could ever do while in space—outside the spacecraft and inside as well—were practiced in submerged, flooded mock-ups? Did “underwater craft” even mean spacecraft mock-ups, or did it include air-filled submarines and underwater habitats, and if so, what was their relevance? No additional details were provided. NASA’s adoption of neutral buoyancy was well-publicized by then, and Soviet pronouncements of the time were sometimes phrased ambiguously to suggest that they were using similar techniques if they appeared to be relevant.

Four months later, in December 1968, an American aerospace trade journal, Aviation Week and Space Technology, reported:
“the Soviets have conducted extensive zero-gravity crew exercises with a Soyuz descent capsule [sic], simulating weightlessness in water tanks [plural, sic]. Cosmonauts with self contained underwater breathing equipment practiced entry and exit through a compression chamber [sic]. They also mounted external equipment carried from the capsule and simulated rescue maneuvers for crew members in trouble outside the spacecraft. The exercises are viewed as preparation for forthcoming EVAs.” (15)
This might have been what Leonov had been referring to, and it corresponds in time with preparations for the extravehicular transfer of Yevgeni Khrunov and Alexei Yeliseyev from Soyuz 5 to Soyuz 4 in January 1969 (16), and maybe even for their previously planned transfer from Soyuz 2 to Soyuz 1 in April 1967 (17). The Aviation Week article also demonstrated western unfamiliarity with both the design of the Soyuz vehicle and the mission profile, understandable due to Soviet secrecy. Western journalists were only just becoming familiar with the recently-revealed configuration of Soyuz as a two-part vehicle, and with the fact that such extra-vehicular transfers were only possible between the docked habitation modules and not the adjoining descent capsules (18). Only the Soyuz habitation module was decompressed independently in the role of a “compression chamber” (19).

But this simple inference is challenged by an authoritative source. While at the IAC in Beijing in September, I met and chatted briefly with Boris Kryuchkov, head of the science directorate of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) near Moscow, about cosmonaut neutral buoyancy work in Russia before 1980. Kryuchkov stated, as translated by Igor Sokhin, his deputy, that neutral buoyancy was not used in training of Leonov, Khrunov and Yeliseyev (20).

After my conversation with Kryuchkov and Sokhin, I reviewed my own notes, and found that long-time British space sleuth Rex Hall had told me much the same thing by email in 2008 (21). Hall noted that the Cosmonaut Training Center had had a swimming pool since the mid-1960s, and he maintained that some training for Voskhod and early Soyuz spacewalks occurred there. He said there was no evidence of submerged mock-ups being used, which suggests that any water immersion training done then was very limited.

First Cosmonaut Neutral Buoyancy Experience

Sevastyanov (left) and Schweickart
in American Apollo spacesuits
at NASA Neutral Buoyancy Simulator.
(Best available photo from Internet.)
Ironically, the first documented evidence of neutral buoyancy involving a Soviet cosmonaut comes from the depths of an American water immersion tank. In October 1970, when Cold War relations between the US and the USSR were in a thaw, cosmonauts Andrian Nikolayev and Vitaly Sevastyanov visited several NASA facilities during a goodwill tour. They had set a new endurance record of 18 days in orbit in June, but their mission had no requirement for EVA training. NASA astronaut Russell Schweickart, in training as a backup crewmember for the Skylab space station missions, had recently met Sevastyanov, and when their tour came to the Marshall Space Flight Center, invited him into the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator (NBS) wearing a US EVA suit (22). On October 21, Schweickart and Sevastyanov simulated changing film canisters in the Skylab solar telescope. Schweickart inferred from Sevastyanov’s behavior and comments that this was his first experience in such a neutral-buoyancy setting, although that does not necessarily mean other cosmonauts had not done something similar.

Neutral Buoyancy Simulator, Building 4705,
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (left);
Hydrolaboratory, Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center right).
Perhaps coincidentally, the long-awaited “hydrolaboratory” planned for GCTC at Star City, outside of Moscow, was approved in December 1970 as part of the 1970-1975 “Five-year Plan,” at the request of Gen. Nikolai Kamanin, head of cosmonaut training (23).  By November 17, Kamanin was planning it (24), and when completed, in January 1980, the cylindrical water tank had the same dimensions as the NBS tank: 23 meters in diameter, 12 meters in depth and 5 million liters in volume (25). These were the dimensions Kamanin had specified almost a decade earlier, less than four weeks after Sevastyanov’s dive in the NBS.

It is always interesting to reconstruct the chain of causality in such events. Schweickart recalled meeting Sevastyanov when they co-chaired a technical session at an IAF (International Astronautical Federation) meeting (26). The only IAF meeting between Sevastyanov’s June 1970 Soyuz flight—when his identity as a cosmonaut would have become public—and his October 1970 visit to the US was at the 21st IAC (of which IAF is a constituent organization) in Constance, Germany, October 4-10, 1970 (27). Thus, the sequence of events leading to the construction of the GCTC Hydrolaboratory, which opened in January 1980 and is still in use today, is due at least in part to a brief meeting at a scientific conference just 10 days before the NBS event took place.

At this year’s IAC, Kryuchkov and Sokhin told me that the first neutral buoyancy EVA training in the Soviet Union was in preparation for Salyut 3 (28) in 1974 and Salyut 5 (29) in 1976, even before the Hydrolaboratory was built (30). I was struck by the fact that they did not say just “Salyut”—Sokhin specifically said “Salyut 3 and Salyut 5.”

Now this was interesting. Salyuts 3 (31) and 5 (32) were both the military version of the Salyut space station, whose full Russian name is best just abbreviated to “OPS,” which were intended to evaluate the usefulness of manned orbital reconnaissance—the Soviet analog of the MOL (about which I have blogged previously). These Salyuts had an airlock for EVA (33), and their cosmonaut crews were presumably trained for EVA (although no EVAs were executed during those missions).

Once again, Abramov and Skoog provided the answer (34). The OPS had a requirement for extravehicular transfer from the crew transport vehicle (not originally intended to be the Soyuz) to the space station, apparently in case the internal pressurized tunnel was unpassable. In November 1969, a modification of the Orlan suit was selected for this purpose, and its development continued until the OPS program was terminated in the late 1970s. In parallel, a variant of the same suit was selected for the civilian version of the Salyut space station designated “DOS,” giving the suit the identifier “Orlan-D.” (Abramov and Skoog didn't say whether the OPS version of Orlan would have been designated “Orlan-O.”) This suit was being tested at “neutral buoyancy facilities” [plural, sic] in 1977.

Kryuchkov and Sokhin confirmed that cosmonaut neutral buoyancy training occurred in the swimming pool at Star City, and that this training included space suits (they agreed when I asked “skafandr?” using something close to the Russian word). Assuming this referred to what I am now calling the “Orlan-O” suits, we may place the 1974 underwater training for Salyut 3 on a continuum from the 1968 Orlan testing to the 1977 Orlan-D training, all before the opening of the GCTC Hydrolaboratory in 1980. [Edit by JBC: apparently I was too presumptuous--Abramov and Skoog reported (Appendix 3, p. 336)  that Orlan-D was to be used in both the OPS and DOS--so, no "Orlan-O."]

Obviously, neutral buoyancy training does not require a dedicated facility. After all, the first US astronaut underwater mission-specific training took place in a boys’ school swimming pool (35).

Romanenko and Grechko training for Salyut 6 EVA
in cosmonaut center swimming pool, 1977
(photo from Hall, Shayler and Vis).
Hall, along with David Shayler and Bert Vis, also published a history of the GCTC and Russia’s cosmonauts, including a brief description of pre-Hydrolaboratory underwater training (36) for Salyut 6 in 1977. They included two photographs of the cosmonauts, Yuri Romanenko and Georgi Grechko, in spacesuits, with scuba divers and a Salyut 6 mock-up underwater in what appears to be a shallow swimming pool with straight, flat walls, unlike the curved cylindrical walls of the Hydrolaboratory. They executed a 20-minute EVA (37) in December 1977.

Subsequent long-duration crews of Salyut 6 also performed single, brief EVAs, in July 1978 (38) and June 1979 (39), the latter being an unplanned EVA to jettison a temporary radio-astronomy antenna. All were trained in what space historian Dennis Newkirk referred to as the “hydrobasin” at Star City, as apparently were the two 2-man crews of Salyut 3 (1974), the three 2-man crews of Salyut 4 (1975) and the three 2-man crews of Salyut 5 (1976).

Summary and Conclusion

In summary, it is probable that the earliest Soviet cosmonaut training for EVA in 1964-1965, like the earliest American astronaut training, did not included neutral buoyancy, even though both programs immersed space-suited astronauts and test subjects in water for survival training and other human engineering purposes. By 1964, efforts are known to have been made in the US—but not Russia—to mimic aspects of weightlessness using water immersion, including human engineering and spaceflight-related operational assessments, and they were expanded to include astronaut preflight training starting in 1966. There are conflicting reports of Soviet crew training using neutral buoyancy in 1968, and the first documented instance of a cosmonaut donning a spacesuit and interacting with a spacecraft mock-up underwater occurred in the US in 1970. By the mid-1970s, neutral buoyancy training for cosmonauts had become established, even though in-flight EVAs were still rare and brief. After the Hydrolaboratory opened at Star City in 1980, both preflight neutral buoyancy training and in-flight EVA took on major significance in the Soviet space station programs.  

In addition, the claim that underwater film footage was used to fake the world’s first EVA appears to require a technology that did not exist at that date.

The details of its adoption in the Soviet Union, including the facilities and their dates of use, may be as revealing as are the details of its adoption in the US, but they are still to be discovered.

[Edited Oct. 22, 2013, to fix typos and enhance clarity.]

  1. “Shenzhou 7,” (retrieved 8 Oct. 2013).
  2. Haishan, Zhang, and Shi Yu, “Chinese Space Walk Filmed in Water, Say Chinese Bloggers,” October 7, 2008, last Updated: October 9, 2008,; Yu, Shi, “Confirmed Discrepancies in CCTV’s Live Broadcast of Shenzhou VII Launch,” (both retrieved 8 Oct. 2013).
  3. Plait, Phil, “Did the Chinese fake their space walk?” October 8, 2008,;  O’Neill, Ian, “Bubbles, Reflections and Space Walks… Did China Really Fake It?” October 8, 2008,; O’Neill, Ian, “China Really Didn’t Fake It (Part Deux),” Feb. 27, 2009, (all retrieved 8 Oct. 2013).
  4. Mallan, Lloyd, Russia's space hoax: Documented Proof that the Soviet Space Program has been Faked, Science & Mechanics Pub. Co, 1966, (retrieved 8 Oct. 2013).
  5. Oberg, James, Space World, 1975, at (retrieved 7 Sep. 2013).
  6. Research, Development & Production Enterprise "Zvezda,” (retrieved 19 Oct. 2013).
  7. Abramov, Isaak P., and Skoog, A. Ingemar, Russian Spacesuits, Springer-Praxis, Chichester, UK, 2003, Chap. 3, pp. 43.
  8. Scott, David, and Alexei Leonov, with Christine Toomey, Two Sides of the Moon, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2004, p. 98.
  9. Kryuchkov, Boris I., and Igor G. Sokhin, personal conversation, Sep. 25, 2013, 64th International Astronautical Congress, Beijing; Wade, Mark, “[FPSPACE] Soviet underwater EVA training preceding Star City Hydrolab?” (retrieved 9 Oct. 2013).
  10. Abramov and Skoog, Chap. 4, pp. 78-79.
  11. Mattingly, G. Samuel, with John B. Charles, “A Personal History of Underwater Neutral Buoyancy Simulation,” Monday, February 4, 2013, (retrieved 11 Oct. 2013).
  12. Abramov and Skoog, Chap. 6, pp. 117-20.
  13. Abramov and Skoog, Chap. 6, pp. 116-7.
  14. Hamilton, Thomas J., “Soviet Astronaut Asks Renaming of a Lunar Sea; At a U.N. Parley He Proposes 'Ocean of Gagarin' to Honor the First Man in Space,” New York Times, Fri., Aug. 16, 1968 ($$),Page 42, 711 words; ASTRONAUTICS AND AERONAUTICS, 1968 (NASA SP-4010), Chronology on Science, Technology, and Policy. (retrieved 2 Sept. 2013). Note that this is the complete final sentence of Hamilton’s article—no further details are available.  This sentence is not included in any other newspaper coverage of the event that I have found.
  15. Industry Observer, Aviation Week & Space Technology, December 16, 1968, p. 11.
  16. “Soyuz 5,” (retrieved 8 Oct. 2013).
  17. “Soyuz 1”, (retrieved 19 Oct. 2013).
  18. Winston, Donald C, "Soyuz series aims for orbital platform", Aviation Week & Space Technology, Nov.18, 1968, pp. 121-123.
  19. “Soyuz (spacecraft),” (retrieved 8 Oct. 2013).
  20. Kryuchkov and Sokhin, Sep. 25, 2013.
  21. Hall, Rex, “[FPSPACE] Soviet underwater EVA training preceding Star City Hydrolab?” (retrieved 9 Oct. 2013).
  22. Schweickart, Russell L., interviewed by Rebecca Wright, Houston, Texas, 8 March 2000, Oral History 2 Transcript, (retrieved 8 Oct. 2013).
  23. “Nikolai Kamanin,” (retrieved 9 Oct. 2013).
  24. Wade, March 2008.
  25. Luna, Bernadette, W. Curtis Lomax and Douglas D. Smith, “Space Simulation in the Neutral Buoyancy Test Facility,” SAE 932554 Sep. 1993; McHale, Suzy, “Kosmonavtika, Hydrolab training,” undated but no earlier than 2004, (retrieved 19 June 2007).
  26. Schweickart, 8 March 2000. (retrieved 8 Oct. 2013).
  27. Dates of previous IAF meetings, per the IAF website, (retrieved 11 Oct. 2013). Date of 21st IAC meeting, per (retrieved 11 Oct. 2013).
  28. Zak, Anatoly, Russian Space Web, (retrieved 1 Oct. 2013).
  29. Zak, Anatoly, Russian Space Web, (retrieved 1 Oct. 2013).
  30. Kryuchkov and Sokhin, Sep. 25, 2013.
  31. “Salyut 3,” (retrieved 19 Oct. 2013).
  32. “Salyut 5,” (retrieved 19 Oct. 2013).
  33. Portree, David S.F., Mir Hardware Heritage (JSC 26770), NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, Oct. 1994, pp. 66-8, 71-2.
  34. Abramov and Skoog, Chap. 8, pp. 147-51.
  35. Mattingly with Charles, February 4, 2013.
  36. Hall, Rex D., David J. Shayler and Bert Vis, Russia’s Cosmonauts – Inside the Yuri Gagarin Training Center, Praxis Publishing Ltd, Chichester, UK, 2005, p. 57-62.
  37. Newkirk, Dennis, Almanac of Soviet Manned Space Flight, Gulf Publishing Co., Houston, TX, 1990, pp. 173-4.
  38. Newkirk, p. 189.
  39. Newkirk, pp. 204-5.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Jones for MOL #9: Would-be MOL Man and other unlikely astronauts

The U.S. Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program was always about three years away from its first launch due to insufficient funding, and was eventually cancelled after only a single flight of a test capsule in the Gemini-B configuration. It had become apparent to the Air Force that MOL would essentially be duplicating the effort of what would become NASA’s Skylab program, and that unmanned reconnaissance satellites had developed to the point where manned presence in space was unnecessary for that purpose (ref. 5).

The seven youngest MOL pilots were accepted as NASA astronauts, their disappointment in losing one space program growing into delayed but glowing successes when they came to dominate the early Space Shuttle era. But in 1967, another MOL physician with a degree in physics, a background as an engineer and aspirations to spaceflight had already made similar arrangements.

William Thornton was one of the self-motivated would-be space travelers that space programs inevitably attract. After earning his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1956 and serving in the Air Force as a specialist in airborne electronic instrumentation, he returned to civilian life to apply his engineering expertise to problems of monitoring clinical patients. In 1961, halfway through medical school, he attended a space medicine symposium in San Antonio, Texas, and came away determined to fly in space himself.  In 1963, the newly-minted M.D. re-joined the active duty Air Force as a captain and completed a rotating internship at the Wilford Hall USAF Hospital at Lackland AFB and the primary flight surgeons’ course at Brooks AFB, both in San Antonio. It was then that he became involved in space medicine research for MOL. His experience while in medical school, where he developed capabilities for monitoring surgical patients under anesthesia as well as the first on-line automatic ECG analysis, had obvious application to the problem of remotely monitoring the health of astronauts in space (refs. 3, 5 and 7). He also designed and developed the first mass measuring device for measuring MOL astronauts' body "weight" in weightlessness (ref. 4), which was patented in 1971 (ref. 8).
This prototype body mass measurement
device (BMMD) was produced for
Capt. William Thornton at the Brooks AFB
for in-flight measurements on MOL astronauts.
Dr. Thornton serendipitously rescued
his prototype BMMD  from a discard
pile at Brooks AFB, and arranged for it
to be donated to Gumma University in
Japan for teaching and research.

Thornton told me (personal communication, 2012) that he had gotten into the MOL program “to try to get a flight.” This might have been conceivable in 1963, but by 1966 it was clear that MOL would not provide such an opportunity. By then there were a dozen designated MOL pilots for the ten available seats (and four more would be selected in 1967). If they were somehow inadequate, the unofficial pilot-physician cadre, sponsored by the Air Force Surgeon General, was poised to claim any openings. Given that the Surgeon General’s protégées (see "A Jones for MOL #8: Shadow MOL Men (Part 1)") are so poorly reported in the accessible literature, it is not impossible that other Air Force organizations were also considering their own would-be astronaut corps, but proof is still absent. Indeed, twenty years later, the Air Force, the Army, the Navy and the National Reconnaissance Office all had cadres of as few as two or three to as many as thirty-one specialists for Space Shuttle missions. Although the Shuttle provided many more flight opportunities than MOL could have done, only three of these service members flew in space before such efforts were discontinued (ref. 5).

In 1966, Thornton contacted NASA about the upcoming second recruitment of scientist-astronauts—having skipped the first such opportunity in 1964 due to his age—and in an August letter, Slayton advised him to apply under the relaxed constraints of the new recruitment. The application period ran from late September into November 1966. Thornton was selected as a scientist-astronaut by NASA in August 1967 (ref. 3).

Robert Crippen (left) and Karol Bobko (right), MOL alumni who transferred
to NASA, were joined by William Thornton in a 56-day isolation study in
1972 to simulate a typical Skylab mission in preparation for a series of
actual spaceflights in 1973-1974.
Although he had left the Air Force and its MOL program, Thornton stayed connected to it (ref. 3, 5 and 7). In 1968, as a civilian astronaut trainee, NASA sent him to the Air Force for jet pilot training, a requirement of all NASA astronauts at that time. Then, in 1972, he spent 56 days simulating a Skylab space station mission with Robert Crippen and Karol Bobko, two of the MOL pilots who had transferred to NASA in 1969. Later, his two Space Shuttle missions were both commanded by MOL transferees: Richard Truly on STS-8 in 1983, and Robert Overmeyer on STS 51-B in 1985.

There are always would-be astronauts in and around any space program. Even space programs with no usable hardware or practical prospects attract would-be astronauts. A quixotic bid to resurrect the Gemini project, “Americans in Orbit (AIO)-50,” surfaced briefly in 2008 and then collapsed completely, but not before a two-person crew was “selected” and visited nearby elementary schools giving inspirational speeches (ref. 1).  In 2013, “Astronauts4Hire,” a non-profit organization, is recruiting crewmembers to tend payloads on upcoming commercial suborbital spaceflights as proxies for investigators who apparently cannot be bothered to fly to the edge of space themselves alongside billionaires and movie stars on sight-seeing junkets (ref. 2).

More realistically, in late 1964, Fred Kelly, a Navy flight surgeon and aviator on loan to NASA, had petitioned Manned Spacecraft Center director Robert Gilruth to fly a pilot-physician such as he on the planned long-duration Gemini flight instead of one of the professional test-pilot astronauts.  Gilruth politely declined to fly someone who had not been competitively selected (ref. 6).

Joseph Kerwin, himself a dual-designated Navy flight surgeon and qualified jet pilot who had, in fact, been competitively selected in the first scientist-astronaut class in June 1965 (the one which Thornton had intentionally sat out due to his age), still could not accomplish what Kelly had attempted. Kerwin has told the story of his first Monday morning astronaut office meeting, after chief astronaut Alan Shepard introduced the new astronauts to their senior colleagues, and then asked for a show of hands from those pilots interested in upcoming Gemini flight assignments, followed immediately by “put your hand down, Kerwin” (personal communication, ca. 2011).

Some, like Kerwin and Thornton, eventually made the next step into orbit themselves; others, like Kelly, never did. But they all advanced the cause of human understanding in spaceflight through their service and contributions.

1. __, “Americans in Orbit-50 Years Inc., A Non-Profit Organization, Announces Its Plan to Re-Create The Flight of the First American to Orbit,” PRNewswire-USNewswire, Jan. 18, 2008, (accessed 30 June 2013).
2. __, “Astronauts 4 Hire,” June 12, 2013, (accessed 30 June 2013).
3. __, NASA biography of William E. Thornton, M.D., (accessed 9 Sep. 2012).
4. __, “Scale measures weightless ‘weights’ in space,” Popular Science, November 1966, p20.
5. Cassutt, M., Who’s Who In Space, The International Space Station Edition, Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1999, pp. 21-5, 31-2.
6. Kelly, F. America’s Astronauts and Their Indestructible Spirit, TAB Books, Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., 1986, p. 89.
7. Shayler, D., and C. Burgess. NASA’s Scientist-Astronauts, Praxis, 2006.
8. Thornton, W.E., Patent number: 3555886, “Nongravimetric Mass Determination System,” Filing date: May 20, 1968, Issue date: Jan 19, 1971, (accessed 30 June 2013).