From Zero Gravity to Leonov

My first duty station as an Air Force research scientist was Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where I was assigned to the Aeromedical Research Laboratory, as close to paradise as a young research minded doctor could ever expect to be. The time was 1960.

One of my first requests of the shop people was that I have a room full of warm water. The final dimensions of my immersion room were 9 by 9 feet with 8 feet of water when filled. Entry was from a platform at the top from which a metal ladder ran down the inner wall. The shop had installed two viewport windows, measuring 2 feet by 6 feet.

Across the back of my immersion room hung a metal cot which would suffice for my sleeping studies to come. The one-piece rubber suit with water-proof zipper was connected to an O-ring at the neck to accommodate a standard partial pressure helmet. Room air entered the helmet through a two-inch rubber tube in the back. This tube also served to carry monitoring leads for such bioinstrumentation as I was planning to use including electro-cardiogram, electro-encephalogram and electro-oculogram.

A regulator comparable to those for SCUBA diving was attached to the rubber suit just below the O-ring. This location, roughly at the apex of the lung, properly adjusted breathing pressure for the usual body attitudes while immersed, but it could be raised or lowered slightly for fine-tuning of breathing pressure. Since the urination system I had used in my seven-day immersion run had worked well, a similar glass receptacle was fabricated by the shop technicians and installed in the crotch of the suit. Plastic containers of liquid food or water were plugged into a port of the partial pressure helmet where the subject need only purse his lips to reach it. A heating system kept the water a constant 95 degree F.

Soon I had a cadre of dedicated volunteers for my immersion runs. During the several months required for my immersion facility to become operational, I had planned my goals. First I planned to do some 6, 12 and 24 hour runs to further explore the physiological mechanisms of the post-flight fainting we expected to see from astronauts returning to Earth after long exposure to zero gravity. I knew that three basic mechanisms were involved: Blood volume control, vascular reflexes and muscle tone.

I knew that just the inevitable body water redistribution in weightless would reduce circulating blood volume. This effect would be noticeable after relatively short exposures of a day or so. With longer exposure times of a week or more, loss of vascular reflexes combined with loss of muscle tone would become of increasing physiological importance. Even in these short exposures, there resulted a significant amount of fainting tendency. In today's world, 80% of space station astronauts returning after six months show significant fainting tendency on return despite all the daily countermeasures thrown at them.

Earlier bed rest studies had demonstrated the effectiveness of intermittent lowering of the foot of the bed in preventing the usual orthostatic intolerance of prolonged bed rest. Extrapolating from that work, I decided to evaluate the effectiveness of intermittent inflation of extremity tourniquets in my next series of immersion runs. I used cycles of one minute on and one minute off with pressure in the cuffs sufficient to obstruct venous return. The results from this study were so promising that several years later one of the Gemini astronauts was equipped with intermittently inflated arm tourniquets throughout his mission. I was gratified that someone was monitoring my work but knew the legs should have been included, but they had not asked me.

Meanwhile, there was much going on in my life that related directly to my research in space medicine. I was selected by NASA as one of the group of medical monitors with deployment starting with the Enos (chimpanzee) mission. During Enos I was stationed at Canton Island in the mid Pacific and was the doctor who first spotted the ominous runs of ventricular tachycardia in the chimp which caused quite an uproar until we found it was due to misplacement of the atrial catheter, which had passed through the AV valve touching and irritating the wall of the right ventricle. I was deployed on one tracking site or another throughout Mercury until mid-Gemini when my NASA scientist-astronaut selection precluded further participation.

Another unusual opportunity came from the Foreign Technology Division (FTD) also located at Wright-Patterson AFB. On a hunch I visited FTD to inquire what medical data they had on the Soviet Laika (the dog) launch. Once this paranoid group reviewed my credentials, I was invited into a back room where I was introduced to a drawer full of biodata from the Laika mission. They had been looking for someone to read this for years and meanwhile had kept it securely locked away.

So began a relationship with FTD that was to last for years. On the basis of the biotelemetry readout we were able to determine basic functions such as electrocardiograms, blood pressure and respiratory rates on Laika for at least several hours. Soon I would have similar data for Vostok cosmonauts Gargarin, Titov, Nickolayev, Popovich, Tereshkova and Bykovsky and the cosmonauts onboard Voskhod 1 and 2, the Soviet second generation vehicle.

Supplementing this FTD data I worked with the electronics people in Building 33 with their high frequency receivers enabling us to break out the Soviet high frequency bio-safety telemetry when Titov came over Dayton, Ohio. From that time on we monitored vital signs of all Vostok and Voskhod cosmonauts as they passed over Ohio. I mention these added responsibilities only because they so well complemented what I was doing in my zero gravity deconditioning studies.

One of the high points of my career then was monitoring cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, during his almost fatal space walk, while I was monitoring him from a tracking ship. I had met Fred Kelly on Rose Knot Victor, a Navy tracking ship on loan to NASA. We arrived on site, several days early-800 miles off Long Beach, California. Weather was beautiful and the food was good. You can't beat the food on a Navy ship, I learned. Our simulation schedule was heavy. We were perfecting our skills for the job ahead. On 18 March with just five days to go before the Gemini launch, we received news from the Captain that the Soviets had just launched Voskhod 2, carrying two cosmonauts, Belyayev and Leonov.

I knew their launch site and I knew their orbital parameters and I knew that sooner or later they would be over the tracking ship and we were all ready to track. The radio news station gave the exact time of launch. It was then rather straightforward to plot their orbital track on a world map knowing the track slides about a thousand miles to the west on each orbit and their vehicle passes 64 degrees north and south of the Equator. According to my preliminary calculations, orbit ten should take them over Rose Knot Victor and they would be coming from the northwest.

Fred was the one who asked why we couldn't track them. "I know this ship has high frequency receivers," he said. "It should be a piece of cake."

I had some misgivings due to the sensitive nature of my information, but we decided to give it a try. Fred cleared it with the Captain, while I talked with the ship electronics technicians.

"You have high frequency receivers on board don't you?" I asked.
"Yes, but we hardly ever use them," he replied. "Most of the time we use VHF equipment."
Just then Fred returned with a nod and a big smile.
"At about ten hundred hours point your HF antennas to the northwest and scan on 19.992 or 19.996 megacycles."
"We can do both," the technician responded. "We have dual antennas."
"Now all we have to do is wait," I said.

Within only a few minutes came the characteristic beep...beep...beep of their twenty megacycle carrier being interrupted by each beat of the cosmonaut's heart. As on the previous multi-manned mission they were switching from one man to the other every ten seconds indicating this with a short burst of first 7.5 then 15 cycles per second signal. When I told the flight controllers what they were getting they couldn't believe it. I admit I was bending our use of classified data a bit, but what better time to admit what everybody knew.

Using an orbital track map and sketching on it the 64 degree inclination to the equator of the Voskhod orbital track, I then estimated the acquisition times and antenna look angles for each of the tracking sites in the NASA network for the next three orbits of Voshkod. Meanwhile Fred requested permission from Houston to track. After obtaining Houston's permission, we sent these figures out to each station in the NASA tracking network. It was a tremendous, once in a lifetime, opportunity.

For the next few hours NASA's entire tracking network was monitoring Voskhod 2. This was an exciting time. I felt proud and fortunate to have had both the unique training to enable this to succeed and the opportunity to participate in such a remarkable experience. It is rare that these two requirements for success occur together.

Finally, someone at NASA headquarters quite justifiably felt they should be getting on with the training for Gemini Three; so they broke it off. No one was surprised, however, several hours later when one of their tracking stations announced something big was happening on Voskhod 2. They just happened to be monitoring their high frequency equipment and on the basis of an abrupt marked increase in heart rate they all knew that Leonov was going extravehicular, another Soviet first.

We did not know until later that Leonov's heart rate increase was probably not so much elevated by going extravehicular as it was when he had trouble getting back in. His hard suit had expanded so it no longer fit the exit hatch. Only by lowering suit pressure could he squeeze back in. This was a very serious undertaking under the circumstances. Not only was the risk of the bends real, Doctors reported that Leonov nearly suffered heatstroke in his exertions to re-enter the spacecraft. His core body temperature climbed 1.8° C (3.1° F). In his debriefing Leonov stated that he was up to his knees in sweat. I have since met Leonov at a spaceflight get-together in San Antonio and told him of my monitoring of his biodata then and we laughed.

It was May, 1965 that what I considered my final goal in space medicine was reached. It was on that day that NASA notified me I was one of the six scientists selected as astronauts and soon would be headed for Williams Air Force Base to begin my training. Of the 1400 scientists who had applied to become astronauts, 400 had been selected for review by the National Academy of Sciences. Sixteen finalists of that screening, including me, had already taken the three final weeks of testing at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine. I was one of the six finalists. I felt deeply honored to be given this opportunity. The Air Force had been a superb training ground.

Duane Graveline MD MPH
Former USAF Flight Surgeon
Former NASA Astronaut
Retired Family Doctor

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