Anticipating the Astronaut: Subject Formation in Early American Space Medicine, 1949-1959
Bimm, Ernest Jordan
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This project expands the scope of existing Space Race histories of the American astronaut mostly focused on daring test-pilots in the 1960sby examining a prior decade of research conducted by doctors and psychologists in the military field of space medicine on a surprising array of non-test-pilot subjects. Examining the historical, social, cultural, and political dimensions of space medicines pre-NASA work, which began in 1949, reveals two key insights. The first is that the astronaut emerged in the immediate aftermath of World War Two and developed in concert with the Cold War for a decade before NASA began operations. The second is that the kind of person space medicine experts came to consider right for space was not solely determined by the requirements of spacecraft control and environmental systems, but also by cultural ideas about bodies, minds, technology, and extreme environments in post-war American society. Based on research conducted at NASA, USAF, and NARA archives, this study examines four nearly-forgotten but revealing episodes in which non-test-pilot subjects were used to establish standards and practices for astronauts later adopted and adapted by NASA. This projects four main chapters each focus on work with a different type of subject: a young, non-flying airmans week-long ordeal playing the role of astronaut in the first Space Cabin Simulator; a mountain-based study of high-altitude Indigenous people for astronaut acclimatization; the post-flight lives of monkeys Able and Baker, Americas first celebrity space animals; and the Lovelace Woman in Space Program, a comparative study of women pilots for space fitness. Beyond the purely technical problem of Who can survive a spaceflight?, this work developing the astronaut posed a more fundamental but unspoken question about Americans: Who should fight the Cold War? Critically examining space medicines work with these non-test-pilot subjects defamiliarizes the astronaut, recasting this utopian hero of the civilian Space Race as an older Cold War military creation with a surprisingly dystopian origin. Moving beyond space-race mythologizing, or internalist scientific progress narratives, this approach challenges the enduring gendered and racialized vision of the white, male, military pilot at its origin in an effort to demilitarize the astronaut and human ventures in space.