(Note: We’ve embedded links to NASA bio pages for astronauts discussed in this post. Click on the highlighted names to find out where they were born, where they went to school, and on what missions they served.)
We sometimes associate a Superman-like public persona with NASA astronauts. Our first guest blogger at Lofty Ambitions called the beach house where astronauts relaxed before missions Superman’s Secret Hideout. Despite the Challenger and Columbia accidents, an aura of invincibility surrounds the success of Apollo 13 and the Hubble repair missions as well as the United States space program generally.
Last week, in the wake of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting (she stood up with assistance today), we wrote about one kind of vulnerability of astronauts. Since then, Astronaut Rick Sturckow was named as temporary replacement on the last Space Shuttle mission so that Mark Kelly, the commander of STS-134, can remain with his wife while Endeavour’s crew trains for the April launch. Mark Kelly, with NASA, will decide in the next few weeks whether he will permanently relinquish command to Rick Sturckow for her last mission—the last mission.
Astronauts strike us as an extraordinarily hearty bunch. The vigor of the 80-year-old Apollo astronauts we met at Kennedy Space Center last November was impressive. But illness, injury, and infirmity, aren’t unknown to the astronauts of any era, Mercury through Shuttle. In some circumstances, the fallibility of even the fittest of human bodies has altered the trajectory of astronaut careers, NASA missions, and even history.
Just this past weekend, Astronaut Timothy Kopra, lead spacewalker for the final mission of Discovery set for the end of February, injured himself in a bicycle accident. The exact details of his accident have yet to be released, but ABC News reported yesterday that Tim Kopra broke his hip. This morning, without naming the injury, NASA named Kopra’s replacement: Steve Bowen, a two-time Shuttle veteran like Kopra. Tim Kopra’s spacewalk and mission specialist duties have been reassigned to Bowen, Michael Barrett, and Nicole Stott, based on their established skills.
NASA has replaced a Shuttle astronaut on eight previous occasions. Ken Mattingly, an Apollo astronaut was replaced three days before a mission because he had been exposed to measles and had not had the illness as a child, but the Bowen for Kopra switch is the closest to launch that a Shuttle astronaut has been replaced. As we polish up this post, NASA is having a press conference to discuss the crew change. Peggy Whitson, Chief of the Astronaut Office, said, “He’s disappointed for sure.” According to Whitson, Kopra joked that his “cat is in the penalty box, and so am I.” Of course, we know what Tim Kopra’s bicycle mishap means: his astronaut career is over. The crews for the remaining missions, even STS-135, which is not funded, have already been named.
Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton’s career as an astronaut was shaped by a physical ailment, too. Deke Slayton was chosen as one of the space program’s first seven astronauts and was assigned to fly the second orbital mission. But a heart murmur grounded him, and he was replaced by Scott Carpenter on Aurora 7. Instead of climbing into a capsule himself, Slayton became the Director of Flight Crew Operations and, in that role, selected crews for Gemini and Apollo. Deke Slayton decided which men would go to the Moon.
In 1972, Astronaut Deke Slayton was cleared to fly space missions. On July 17, 1975, he was the module pilot for the historic in-space docking of Apollo and Soyuz capsules. For the following two years, he directed approach and landing testing for the then-new Space Shuttle and continued to work on the STS program until his retirement in 1982. Had he not suffered a heart condition, he would likely have flown on more early missions. But his roles behind the scenes shaped the space program much more widely for decades.
Another astronaut whose career was altered by physical frailty was Michael Collins. Collins flew on Gemini 10, then was named to Apollo 8, the first manned mission to leave Earth’s orbit. But Collins required back surgery for a herniated disc and was replaced by Jim Lovell on that mission. In Carrying the Fire, he writes of wondering “whether I was an astronaut detained briefly on his way to the moon, or a hopeless cripple who would spend his remaining days boring his VA hospital compatriots with stories of his former prowess.” Once he was fully recovered and medically cleared, Collins took Lovell’s place on Apollo 11, thereby making history as part of the first crew to go all the way to the Moon itself. While Michael Collins didn’t walk on the Moon with his fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, he remains one of just six men to have circled the Moon all alone in a space capsule, an even more rare experience than standing on the Moon’s surface.
Scott Carpenter, Deke Slayton’s replacement on Apollo 8, ended his astronaut career in 1964, with a motorcycle accident that broke his arm. Rumor has it, however, that NASA welcomed a reason to reassign Carpenter after the Aurora 7 mission: a mistake drained fuel, the capsule was off target, and the drogue shoot didn’t open the first time he pushed its button. Having overshot the landing by 250 miles, Scott Carpenter sat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with no one near enough to hear communications. When water seeped into the capsule, he got out to wait in the life raft, which he realized was upside down only after he was sitting in it. Roughly three hours after splashing down, Carpenter was standing on the ship Intrepid, heading home, but he did not return to space.
Other astronauts have faced set-backs, too. We’ve recounted Walter Shirra’s cold and its concurrent grumpiness during the Apollo 8 mission, a post whose accuracy Walt Cunningham confirmed via email (click here for that post). Fred Haise suffered from a urinary tract infection during the Apollo 13 mission. In fact, one of the science experiments scheduled for STS-133 involves studying the body’s ability to fight infection. During the days of Apollo, the great fear was that astronauts would return with a super-bug that could ravage the Earth-bound population. But instead, Astronaut Fred Haise returned with a raging infection from a bug that wouldn’t have made his usual earthly self feel sick at all.
In her investigation, scientist Millie Hughes-Fulford, an astronaut herself, found that 15 of the 29 Apollo astronauts developed an infection during or immediately after space flight and that it was not the result of increased stress hormones. She surmises—and wants to study further—that certain genes are activated in low gravity. Anna talked with Dr. Hughes-Fulford after a press conference in November. The long-term goals of her immunology experiment with mice on the International Space Station are to improve T-cell activity and better understand aging. Her experiment will launch on Discovery’s last flight in February.