All About Aerospace Medicine

Photo Courtesy: UTMB.edu

Diego Garcia/Aerospace Medicine Physician

What is Aerospace Medicine anyway?

Man is neither physically nor psychologically a suitable organism for flight, but the advent of powered flight (within and beyond Earth’s atmosphere) imposed new physiologic demands such as extreme altitude and acceleration exposure. These challenges were experimented by the first humans flying aboard Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon, and still being present in leading-edge flight systems nowadays. 

Human beings have been taking off their feet from the ground and soaring in the air for more than a century now, and we take as a starting point that we have evolved as land-dwelling beings with primarily diurnal habits. Thus, aerospace industry poses unique health risks for anybody involved in flight operations. In that scope, Aerospace Medicine is the medical discipline bringing together basic concepts of preventive, occupational and emergency medicine; this multidisciplinary approach deals with health risks, acclimation, safety and performance of people exposed to extreme environmental conditions, such as those present in aerospace activities.

Whether civil or military, aerospace operations have seen expedited technological advances such as flying heavier-than-air machines, moon landings and ultra-long-haul flights in composite materials aircraft. But human beings have not changed (evolved) in the meanwhile, at least not genetically. That is why coping with physical and mental stresses inflicted by 24/7, highly automated, and exceedingly productive aerospace operations is a big deal in order to effectively assure both user safety and well-being for operators. Not to mention that with over four billion passengers flying around the globe, this constitutes no less than a public health issue.

The sole term Aerospace Medicine could appear avant-garde, but clinicians and medical researchers have been around airplanes almost since their starting days. Moreover, the development of manned space flight led to the evolution of Aviation Medicine into Aerospace Medicine; but even today, aeromedical practices still face significant challenges. Although evidence-based practice throughout most fields of medicine has seen noticeable growth and acceptance, aerospace medicine practitioners often find themselves using the lowest level of evidence (expert opinion, unsupported by a systematic review). Some aeromedical assessments and decisions are often not based on the acceptance of any particular level of aeromedical risk. This is due mainly to the sui generis and relatively new environmental scenario of aerospace enterprises but also is derived from the limited number of subjects and the difficulty in designing and carrying out high-quality medical research of aeronautical populations while on duty.

But anyways, aeromedical examiners (AME’s), flight surgeons, aeromedical retrieval operators, travel health specialists or human performance experts; all together practice this multidisciplinary, clinical, unique and fascinating medical specialty advocating for aircrews, travelers, astronauts and aeronautical personnel off and on the ground, helping them to perform effectively in this hostile environment for the sake of air and space exploration.