Many physicians find it difficult to diagnose a mysterious illness that inflicts a patient, and prescribing a beneficial treatment could be incorrect. For Dr. Jerry Hordinsky, a physician originally from Drake, N.D., in McHenry County, the difficulty was even greater because his patients were often in space, orbiting the earth.

Hordinsky was the flight surgeon (primary doctor) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and his patients were American astronauts. He was with NASA from 1972 to 1981, the whole time that Skylab, the U.S. space station, was operational.

Skylab allowed the astronauts to be in space for prolonged periods of time, and this extended time living in a weightless environment affected their bodies in many ways. It altered the functioning of all the body’s organs, especially the heart, stomach and intestines, eyes and brain.

On Earth, gravity pulls bodily fluids toward the lower parts of the body, but in microgravity, fluids move from the lower parts toward the upper body, and this redistribution of fluids causes the heart to become enlarged, which affects the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain. This redistribution of fluids also takes place in the eyes, affecting vision.

In microgravity, there is also a noticeable amount of bone and muscle wasting. These were some of the new issues that Hordinsky needed to carefully monitor while the astronauts were in outer space.

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Jerry Roman Hordinsky was born Aug. 3, 1942, to Bohdan and Irene (Tysowsky) Hordinsky, in Kalush, a small city in western Ukraine. Bohdan Hordinsky was a well-respected doctor in the Soviet-controlled republic of Ukraine and was reportedly “Josef Stalin’s personal physician for a while.”

Shortly before Jerry’s birth, Kalush fell to the Nazi German Army and was occupied by the Third Reich, which systematically attempted to kill all of the Jews in the town. Since Hordinsky had many Jews as patients, and had continued to treat them after German occupation, he knew that he and his family were at risk and decided to flee the country.

The Hordinsky family fled to Vienna, Austria, and ended up settling in a small city in the Austrian Alps. “When the war ended, they moved to Salzburg, Austria, where Hordinsky headed a United Nations hospital.”

On Dec. 14, 1947, the family boarded a vessel headed to the U.S. and arrived in New York City on Christmas Day. Hordinsky practiced medicine at St. James Hospital in Newark, N.J., and, in 1949, moved to Bottineau, N.D., where he spent a year as an intern at the hospital. In 1951, the family relocated to Drake and Dr. Hordinsky established his practice there.

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At an early age, it became very evident that Jerry Hordinsky was gifted intellectually, and he was sent to St. Paul to attend the prestigious St. Thomas Military Academy for junior high and high school. After graduating, he attended the University of Minnesota, where he focused on an engineering and pre-medicine curriculum and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in applied mathematics.

On Sept. 16, 1963, Hordinsky began medical school at the University of North Dakota, which at that time was only a two-year program. For his final two years, he attended Northwestern University in Chicago, receiving his medical degree in 1967. Hordinsky interned in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, earning his license to practice medicine.

On Sept. 20, 1968, Hordinsky enlisted in the U.S. Army as a flight surgeon, with the anticipated opportunity to eventually work for NASA. He was sent to Boston where he earned a master’s degree in industrial health from Harvard University in 1972, and then went to the University of Oklahoma where he became certified in both occupational and aerospace medicine.

Since Hordinsky was no longer obligated to serve in the Army due to being discharged on March 19, 1971, he was hired by NASA to be a flight surgeon. At the time Hordinsky was hired, NASA was nearing completion of the Apollo phase of its space program, and plans were well underway for launching a space station into orbit in the spring of 1973. On Dec. 11, 1972, the last Apollo flight took place, and on May 14, 1973, the rocket carrying the Skylab space station was launched into orbit.

Skylab was a 169,950-pound space station that contained a workshop and solar observatory for three crew members. On May 25, the first manned flight to the Skylab space station was launched with astronauts Charles Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin aboard.

Besides the effects on the body already mentioned earlier, there were also other concerns. With a reduction of oxygen to the brain, the control of emotions was reduced, and because the three astronauts would be living and working in very cramped quarters, the chances of emotional flare-ups increased.

Another great concern was nausea in space. Space sickness, or “space adaptation syndrome,” is nausea “experienced by as many as half of all space travelers during their adaptation to weightlessness once in orbit.” Since a number of space walks were scheduled for the astronauts in Skylab, it could be fatal for them to vomit while in a space suit. “The vomit could smear the inside of the helmet, blinding the astronaut, and because the helmet could not be removed,” the vomit could be inhaled or clog the oxygen circulation system.

Hordinsky carefully examined all of the astronaut’s medical data transmitted from Skylab to the monitors at his medical facility, noting anything that veered from normal. Each night, he would hold a radio conference with the astronauts to elicit any of their concerns or anxieties and then make recommendations to address their concerns and correct the medical abnormalities.

The first manned Skylab (called Skylab 2) mission lasted 28 days, and the crew returned to Earth on June 22, 1973. Skylab 3 was launched on July 28, and the astronauts remained in space for 59.5 days. Skylab 4 was launched on Nov. 11, and the astronauts returned to Earth on Feb. 8, 1973, having been in space for 84 days.

Astronaut Owen K. Garriott, Skylab 3's science pilot, performs an extravehicular activity at the Apollo Telescope Mount of Skylab in 1973. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
Astronaut Owen K. Garriott, Skylab 3's science pilot, performs an extravehicular activity at the Apollo Telescope Mount of Skylab in 1973. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

Much of Hordinsky’s work occurred after the astronauts returned to Earth. He ran extensive tests for three days on each of the men, with a heavy emphasis on making certain that their minds and bodies were adapting properly to the gravitational environment back on Earth.

Because NASA realized that the more effective Space Shuttle program was moving forward, the scheduled launching of Skylab 5 was canceled. The mid-1970s was a period of détente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and both countries agreed to do a joint space venture called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). On July 15, 1975, both the U.S. and Soviet Union launched separate spacecrafts that docked/joined together on July 17, and the teams did joint space ventures and experiments.

After 44 hours together, the spacecrafts separated and the teams returned to Earth. Upon splashdown, the U.S. crew was exposed to toxic fumes that were accidentally vented into the cabin of the aircraft, and the astronauts were hospitalized for two weeks. This was the only major health issue that Hordinsky was not able to avert during his time as flight surgeon, and it was totally out of his control.

With no more space flights scheduled until 1981, Hordinsky went to Germany and served as deputy flight surgeon for the European Space Agency. From 1982 to 1999, he worked for the Federal Aviation Administration as its clinical and research medical officer and then as manager of their Aeromedical Research Division. Much of his work involved writing reports about health and safety issues he observed and encountered while he was the primary flight surgeon for the astronauts involved in space travel.

Dr. Jerry Hordinsky died on Oct. 20, 2000.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.

Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist