Chris Hatfield describes how a bureaucratic tangle with the space doctor bureaucracy almost grounded him before his ISS expedition.


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Bureaucracy in space: In a new book, astronaut Chris Hatfield describes how a bureaucratic tangle with the space doctor bureaucracy almost grounded him before his ISS expedition.

“The secrecy and paternalism really bothered me. They trusted me at the helm of the world’s space ship, but had been making decisions about my body as though I were a lab rat who didn’t merit consultation.” The “they” Hadfield refers to are members of the Multilateral Space Medicine Board (MSMB), a body of representatives from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia who judge the medical fitness of astronauts to go on missions. ….

The bureaucracy wanted Hatfield to undergo an emergency operation to make sure everything was okay. He refused,

triggering what Hadfield describes as a “Kafkaesque” journey through “a bureaucratic quagmire where logic and data simply didn’t count.” … “Internal politics and uninformed opinions were what mat­tered,” he says in the book. “Doctors who hadn’t ever performed a laparoscopic proce­dure were weighing in; people were making decisions about medical risks as though far greater risks to the space program itself were irrelevant.”

I find this interesting in that, of the astronauts I have interviewed over the years, I can’t remember any who had good words to say about the official government doctors they had to deal with, both in the U.S. and in Russia.

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  • Tom Billings

    Pilots, as a group, have never been enamored of flight surgeons. After all, the major interaction a pilot has with a flight surgeon is being told “You can’t fly!”, to someone who lives to fly. The biggest result of adding more layers of bureaucracy is to keep the pilot or astronaut from being able to directly argue his or her case to the one who makes the decision. *Not* a recipe for happiness!

    I dealt with some of the people involved with medical effects of free fall on human performance in the Shuttle Program for some months in the 1980s. Even the physician who had been flying on the Shuttle, when he visited our museum, talked like he was against most of what he called “the space sickness industry”.

    He claimed that about a quarter of the people who go into space would always throw up the first day, and then most would be fine by the second day. About a quarter of that quarter would be sick for a week, and then most would get over it, and about a quarter of those would be sick for a month, and then get over it. A quarter of those should never go into Space. There were cross-currents within the community who studied space sickness for NASA that were, …distracting.

    At the end of the 1980s a play was written about the life of a physician studying space sickness. It included such egregious slurs about the protagonist as obviously direct quotations from that particular physician-astronaut, which would have required NASA to fire him, that as a script checker for it I had to advise a revision excising that. Why? Knocking a high-profile astronaut from JSC in those days would have also ensured so little cooperation from the Astronaut Office in the future that the protagonist’s career in Space Medicine would also have been finished, or at least brought to a screeching halt. NASA has always been strongly protective of the angel/right stuff image of “the Astronaut Corps.”

    Add to this sort of atmosphere the complications of differing medical doctrine and practice in each country contributing bureaucrats to the medical bureaucracy, then add the politics between those countries just to complicate matters, and you get a perfect stew of strife.

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