Fit to travel to the Moon? part 1
In 1968, only months before his historic Apollo 11 Moon voyage, Michael Collins discovered that there was something seriously wrong with him claiming that "My legs didn't seem to be functioning normally."
Further nerve anomalies developed spreading from his left leg and into his side. Reluctantly Mike consulted the NASA flight surgeon. He knew there were only two ways he could walk out of the doctors office, "on flying status or grounded."
Following a referral to a specialist Neurologist Mike Collins received the catastrophic career-ending diagnosis that he was suffering from a bone growth between his fifth and sixth neck vertebrae that in turn was pushing against his spinal cord.
It was decided that Wilford Hall Hospital in San Antonio would carry out an anterior cervical fusion on the 22nd July 1968. Mike describes the extremely serious operation in these terms: "Slitting my throat so to speak, removing the spur and some adjoining bone and then fusing the two vertebrae together with a small dowel or bone removed from my hip."
During the operation it was discovered that "the disc which had worked its way completely loose from its vertebrae and had fallen down into the spinal tunnel and made such a mess of my myelogram2 and my life."
Mike Collins woke from the operation to find "A plastic ring around my neck and chin, preventing any motion, and there was a dull pain, as promised, on the point of my right hip bone, from which a circular chunk had been removed."
Following Mike's recuperation he was forced to wear a plastic support ring around his neck until the end of October 1968 when he was allowed to dispense with it.
This of course would have rendered any serious astronaut training out of the question.
Mike had also experienced leg problems whilst on his July 1966 Gemini 10 flight. He writes, "My left knee hurts, a throbbing ache that began a couple of hours ago, gradually worsened and is now holding steady at a moderate but very uncomfortable level of pain. I think it is nitrogen coming out of a solution in the tissues and creating little bubbles which press on my nerves."3
Mike experienced a similar pain in altitude chambers, perhaps believing erroneously that "I must be more sensitive than most." In retrospect one wonders if this medical condition was a precursor to the events leading to the operation of 1968.
In November he was granted full flying status in aircraft. At the same time he learnt that "Most of my spinal cord damage was apparently permanent, but my coordination did seem SLIGHTLY improved, and if the hot/cold water (sensitivity test) awareness in one leg was still unsatisfactory, so what, that was something I could live with easily."
Clearly Mike was resigned to adapting to his diminished physical circumstances. He states that "It takes 125 days to recover from an anterior cervical fusion."4
Needless to say it must have seemed astonishing to contemporary able-bodied astronauts that NASA's strict medical criteria would tolerate placing a recently convalesced medical risk on the first Moon landing mission, especially given the G-forces that would be encountered in training and on the mission itself.
In the sixth months prior to the July 16th launch of Apollo 11, Mike explains that "The centrifuge in Houston clamoured for our attention, because coming back from the Moon we could experience a force of 10 or more Gs, eyeballs in, far more taxing than the acceleration produced by any of the earth orbital flights."5
(The human body is better at surviving G-forces that are perpendicular to the spine. In general when the acceleration is forwards the subject is essentially lying on their back, colloquially known as ‘eyeballs in’. It must be reiterated that Mike’s spine had been permanently damaged.)
On April 14th 1969 some five and a half months after removing his neck brace Mike recounts from notes taken on that date: "The day began in Houston with the centrifuge, never pleasant, but especially bad when imitating lunar returns. At 10 Gs my chest caves in and my vision narrows, and when I finally reeled out of the torture chamber, I dared not turn my head left or right, lest I tumble my giros and fall over in an undignified heap."
How incredible that NASA would allow a recent victim of anterior cervical fusion surgery, the cause of which had left the patient with a permanently damaged spine, to endure G-forces of such extremes.
Evidently Michael Collins possessed attributes that were absolutely essential to Apollo 11. He was to go at any cost!
Ironically the scrupulous if not fanatical medical scrutiny afforded to Apollo astronauts is part of the legend of NASA. Dr Charles A (Chuck) Berry has reinforced this ideal on various occasions, such as televised anniversary celebrations, where he is portrayed as the master of the voyagers’ medical supervision.
However, this was not everybody's perception.
Mike Collins describes the doctor in these theatrical terms: "Chuck Berry (who billed himself as our personal physician although we rarely saw him) . . . other Berryisms included telling the press that one of us was probably going to get sick in the lunar receiving laboratory after the flight, and that we would have to be traced all our lives to make sure we weren't carriers of lunar organisms with extremely long incubation periods."6
Dr Berry claimed that he was charged with achieving a .999 per cent quality control factor with regard to the crews medical condition.7
Inevitably one must conclude that this goal was never seriously implemented.
In a surprise disclosure during the same interview, the doctor probably added ammunition to those heretics who claim that NASA, or its antecedents conspired with elements of Hollywood to falsify the Apollo record, Dr Berry informs us that: "I was sent to Hollywood for three months to be a technical advisor for the Air Force on a TV series that was called Men Into Space, and we actually went to the Moon."
"Bill Lundigan was playing an Air Force colonel, and his wife was Angie Dickinson, very young at that time. And we got to the Moon in that thing. It was a series before its time," (broadcast between September 30th, 1959 to September 7th, 1960) ". . . because I don't think it did very well, and it didn't last over, I think, that season." (In fact 38 episodes were produced.)
Wikipedia describes a prophetic twist to the TV series, Men into Space:
The series included an episode whose plot essentially paralleled the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission's explosion in space more than a decade later, and another that was an uncanny foretelling of the accident that befell the real Gemini VIII mission in 1966.
The cynical may wonder how the doctor could be a participant in such precognitive story telling but forget to inform the interviewer of this mind-boggling coincidence!
Following his Hollywood apprenticeship, Dr Berry was to spend 50 per cent of his time attached to the Special Task Group based at the Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, so ubiquitously linked with the Apollo simulation programs.
On January 6th 1969, Deke Slayton NASA's Director of Flight Crew Operations informed Neil Armstrong that his two Apollo 11 crew members would be Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
Gene Cernan describes Aldrin in these terms: "Buzz was on shaky ground with NASA management because of his decision making ability/he couldn't seem to stick to a subject/combined with reports of his work in the simulators and other training, Deke Slayton said that in his opinion, Buzz would not be up to an all-out fight with the AMU – Astronaut Manoeuvring Unit."8
Cernan also claims that during his Gemini 9 EVA, Aldrin’s dangerous advice on resolving a problem left top officials "aghast" and subsequently Deke Slayton had a tough time persuading Bob Gilruth, head of the Manned Spaceflight Center to allow Buzz to keep his place on the Gemini 12 mission.9
Ultimately the reader will be left to ponder the enigma that allowed NASA to select Aldrin and Collins for mankind's greatest adventure, despite their apparent defects.
Aulis Online, August 2013
1. Carrying the Fire Michael Collins – Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009 p.288
2. A myelogram is an older type of medical test that is still used to examine the spinal canal and spinal cord. A special dye is placed into the spinal sac that shows up on X-rays to indicate any abnormalities. Before there were CT and MRI scans, the myelogram was the best test to determine the cause of pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves.
3. Carrying the Fire Michael Collins – Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009 p.214
4. Ibid. p.300
5. Ibid. p.321
6. Ibid. p.349
7. Oral History transcript, Charles A Berry interviewed by Carol Butler, Houston Texas, April 29, 1999
8. The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America's Race in Space
St Martin’s Griffin 2009 p.157
9. Ibid. p.123