Medical matters

Although the Apollo crews were drawn from a pool of very fit men, each of whom had undergone an exhaustive medical examination before being hired and again before the flight, they were nonetheless human and ended up suffering the normal range of minor illnesses and conditions during their flights that one would expect from any sample of healthy people. One perennial problem that afflicted the early flights was the common cold. It made life much harder for the Apollo 7 crew when they all contracted colds early in their 11-day flight, and it caused the launch of Apollo 9 to be delayed for three days to enable its crew to recover from a bout of sniffles and congested noses. Their susceptibility was attributed to their high work rate prior to launch, which sapped their immune system, and to the large numbers of people with whom they came into contact in those final weeks and days. Afterwards, NASA began to quarantine their crews to reduce the likelihood of their catching colds.

Of some surprise and initial concern to the doctors was the prevalence of motion-related sickness experienced by Frank Borman on Apollo 8 and Rusty Schweickart on Apollo 9. Motion sickness had not been a problem during the Mercury and Gemini flights, and nor had it shown up on Apollo 7; so when Borman began vomiting within a day of Apollo 8's launch, doctors and managers feared for the mission. Borman was unwilling to mention how ill he was feeling on the normal communications channel, so he left a message on the voice track of the spacecraft's tape recorder. This was later transmitted to Earth on a secondary communications channel within the S-band signal, and the crew gave mission control a subtle hint that they should check the recorder's voice quality.

When mission control eventually decided that there was something to listen to, they heard about Borman's condition and arranged to have a private conversation with him from another control room in the Mission Control Center building. Their diagnosis was that Borman must have contracted a viral infection, but by that time, he had recovered. With hindsight, his condition was attributed to motion sickness. After Schweickart suffered similar symptoms, NASA had its crews try to condition themselves to extremes of motion by performing aerobatic manoeuvres in the T-38 aircraft that were made available to them.

The problem seemed to stem from the greater space available to the crew in the Apollo cabin. Mercury and Gemini spacecraft were very small and a crewman could do little more than sit in his couch. In the Apollo command module, especially with the centre couch folded away, there was room enough to do weightless spins and somersaults. Some crewmen found the disturbance to their vestibular system upsetting. The longer term history of spaceflight has shown that a proportion of space travellers simply have to overcome an initial adjustment to weightlessness.

To try to mitigate the effects of so-called space adaptation syndrome, the crew could dip into a medical kit that had been included in the cabin. There wasn't room for much, but doctors had tried to cover most of the minor ailments from which an otherwise healthy man might suffer. On Apollo 11, the kit carried ointments, eye-drops, sprays, bandages and a thermometer. It included an assortment of pills, such as antibiotics, anti-nausea tablets, analgesics and stimulants. There were aspirins, decongestants, anti-diarrhoea pills and sleeping pills. There was also a selection of injectors for pain suppression and motion sickness. A smaller kit was kept in the lunar module.

''It was pretty clear that the medical kits were not carefully packed,'' said Armstrong during Apollo 11's debrief. ''The pill containers blew up as if they had been packed at atmospheric pressure. The entire box was overstuffed and swollen. It was almost impossible to get it out of the medical kit container.''

''I ripped the handle off as a matter of fact, trying to pull it out,'' added Collins.

''That was even after we cut one side off the medical kit,'' said Armstrong, ''so it would be less bulky and we would be able to put it in the slot.''

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