Space in Russia (5)

Space in Russia (5)

A Testing Time at the I.M.B.P.


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At the Moscow based Institute of Medical and Biological Problems for cosmonauts “Staying in bed for a while” can often mean doing so – for a whole year!!Literally you get your food in your bed and you can not walk to the lavatory; when you need to do what nature requires you will get a slop pail The laboratory guinea-pigs who subject themselves to such a regime are volunteers who can use the money and also have a pile of un-read books when they arrive. Of course, everyday doctors come to examine them and “shrinks” come to talk to see if everything is still “al-right” inside their heads.

Such remarkable experiments arc necessary to measure changes to the body. Not walking for a long period means less gravitation which will change bone structure as well as affecting the calcium in the bones. Humans in space for many months, like the Russian cosmonauts in space station Mir, profit from the results of the medical experiments by the IMBP doctors upon their guinea-pigs.

“The Kindergarten.” is the nick-name both astronauts-to-be and the doctors have for the clinic. That is a very precise definition not only because the professional life of the cosmonauts begins here, but the building is an old two storey house and docs remind one of a real kindergarten – and initially that’s exactly what it was intended to be; but the decision was made to give the building to the IMBP.

As with other departmental buildings in Moscow you can walk past the IMBP facilities without much remarking upon it as you can see from its non-descript appearance in the picture above where a female doctor is strolling at the front, but don’t be mistaken for inside you will find the best doctors and nurses in Russia, all of whom have themselves passed the medical training for space-flight This helps them to carry out the very complex, long-term and sometimes dangerous tests and experiments.

The first medical doctor who went into space was IMBP pioneer Boris Yegorov, who together with cosmonaut commander Komarov and scientist Feoktistov was launched on October 12th 1964 in the world’s first three-manned spacecraft. Voskod 2 and flew 16 orbits during a 24-hour cosmic ride!  A week later, the postal authorities issued five stamps, honouring this flight and the crew of three. One of the stamps depicts Dr Yegorov and a very attractive stamp block was issued on Nov 20 1964 with the portraits of all three crew together.

“We are weird kind of doctors. We are not working with sick people as doctors normally do but with healthy people. For new staff it is strange because they are not accustomed to it” said Prof Edward Matsnev. Deputy Director of IMBP in his welcome speech to the party of Dutch space enthusiasts I was with on my visit to the IMBP. He and Doctor of Medicine Yuri Voronkov. Head of the IMBP Astronaut Selection Dept. accompanied the group on its excursion through the institute. We learned about the “Year Sleepers” and saw them, then heard a lot about medical experiments and some of us were invited to volunteer for some tests.

The most unpleasant test turned out to be in the Coriolis acceleration chair, which – used for vestibular analysis – rotates for a minute in one direction then for a minute in the other and the test subject is required to bend down and back up again on the command of the doctor. During this test the main task is not to lose consciousness and not to fall out of the chair. Additionally in the process of the rotation you have to answer the questions asked and the readings of the sensors should be normal. After the test, body status has to be quickly restored especially pulse and blood pressure.

One of us did ride this “torture chair” and we see Dr Voronkov on the threshold of the chamber where the chair is. In the chair we see Andre Kuipers of Amsterdam still smiling, but the smile quickly disappeared when the rotation began! Nevertheless he passed the test with flying colours, as it were! But in fact that was not so surprising since Andre was at that time an astronaut-candidate for ESA and was well used to tests of this kind. Kuipers M.D. is now an ESA doctor at ESTEC (The European Space Research and Technology Centre) in Noordwijk in the Netherlands. The “space doctor” from Holland volunteered also to lie on a bed with his down and feel up with all the blood going to his head and so making his pate very rose indeed.

About 500 doctors, nurses and technicians are working at IMBP in order to ensure the well-being of cosmonauts. Of course the candidates have to be healthy in body and mind and that will be examined at IMBP with a lot of tests. The human being is the centre of all such experimentation as man is the centre of Earth and living being in space. This we see in the 1978 10k Soviet stamp in a set marking the Interkosmos Project.

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