Aerospace medicine is “that specialty of medical practice within preventive medicine that focuses on the health of a population group defined by the operating aircrews and passengers of air and space vehicles, together with the support personnel who are required to operate and maintain them.”1 The practice of aerospace medicine tends to reverse the usual order of traditional or curative medicine. Normally the physician is treating abnormal physiology (illness) in a normal (terrestrial) environment. The physician concerned with the care of the aviator or astronaut most frequently deals with a normal (perhaps supernormal) individual in an abnormal (aeronautical) environment.
Since its earliest beginnings, flight has required people to adapt to or to protect themselves from multiple environmental stressors. Progress in flight has required continuing improvement in adaptation or in the devices used for protection. Such progress has always been marked by the sacrifices made by those who push the envelope of aeronautical and astronautical activity. On December 17, 1903, on a windswept beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers succeeded in accomplishing sustained powered flight for 12 seconds over a distance of 40 m. In less than 15 years, thousands of these powered flying machines swarmed over the battlefields of the “Great War.” During this rapid expansion of military aviation, the seed of aviation medicine sprouted, took root, and grew. The department of space medicine was officially established at the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine under the directorship of Dr Hubertus Strughold on February 9, 1949.2
The first human-operated flight in space, circumnavigating the globe, was performed by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961. In February 1962, American astronauts joined the Soviets with the successful orbital flight of John Glenn.
Biomedical oversight for the United States' space program is headquartered at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) facility at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. Following successful lunar flights and space laboratory missions, the United States entered into a nearly routine operation with the space transportation system or “shuttle.” The losses of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, however, are a reminder of the operational hazards of space flight.
THE SPECIALTY OF AEROSPACE MEDICINE
Shortly after World War II, the Aero Medical Association initiated activities for the establishment of a training program for medical specialists in the field of aviation medicine. In 1953, the American Board of Preventive Medicine (ABPM) approved the decision to authorize certification in aviation medicine. The first group of physicians was certified in the specialty that same year. As of 2005, 1376 physicians have been certified in the specialty.
With the advent of space flight, both the association and the specialty changed names to appropriately reflect activities in both the aeronautical and astronautical environments. The name of the specialty was officially changed by the ABPM to Aerospace Medicine.