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Spaceflight 48:195, 2006

Flight surgeons’ Apollo 15 puzzle


Sir, I realise that the Apollo suits were quite uncomfortable and perhaps less so, with subsequent EVA over the years, as suggested in your very comprehensive article, (Spaceflight, December 2005, p467) ‘Working on the Moon’, based on interviews in 1993 of eight of the “moonwalkers”.

  The article concludes with the statement: “Of all their comments and suggestions, there was one thing that the Apollo moonwalkers were emphatic about as the most important spacesuit requirement for future moonwalkers: ‘Better gloves, better gloves, better gloves’.” I based my “Apollo 15 Space Syndrome” [1] characterized by pain and probably oedema of the finger tips, serving as a warning that injuries of the lining of the coronary vessels (endothelium) might exist as well – on the predisposition for arteriolar and venous endothelial injuries of the fingertips, with vasospasm and fluid, trapped distally, from Irwin’s account in his autobiography To Rule the Night [2]. “Both of us now realized with some dismay how much our fingers hurt. The pain was excruciating. We took each other’s gloves off to see what the problem was. The perspiration poured from our gloves. I looked at my nails but couldn’t understand why they were hurting so much; they never hurt on Earth. In the six days since launch the fingernails had grown, and they had been immersed in sweat for the last seven hours. The pressure was on the end of each nail. And our gloves fitted tightly against the end of the fingers so we could have some feel thorough the heavy material. I took my scissors and cut my nails just as far as I could. From then on, on the next EVA, there was no problem at all. I said: Dave, cut your fingernails – that will solve the problem. But Dave would not cut them. He just put up with the pain through the next two EVA. I was really dragging. Tired, exhausted, hungry, thirsty.”

   When I submitted my paper to Circulation in 1998, I sent along with it pp72-74 of Irwin’s autobiography, containing this passage, emphasising that the book, which I was fortunate to obtain, was out of print. Subsequently I contacted Irwin’s widow, and she told me that Irwin regretted not having set the spacesuit temperature control to a cooler level but “he always liked the heat” (personal communication).

   Since the temperature at noon on the Moon is 250 degrees F, and in addition the astronauts trained in the southern US for this mission, in “intense summer heat”, conducive to a magnesium deficit, along with other factors which can precipitate endothelial injuries, I felt I was justified in arguing the rationale for this syndrome. I still feel that way, despite the complaints about the glove discomfort of the Apollo astronauts.

   Apollo 15 was considered “different” than the other Apollo missions! There was concern about electrolyte deficiencies, possibly responsible for the potentially serious heart rhythm disturbances, with a brief loss of consciousness in Irwin’s case after returning to the command module; this syncope could have been triggered by both a magnesium deficit as well as dehydration - to a greater degree than the invariable dehydration of space flight - precipitated by malfunction of the in-suit water devices of both Astronauts. Apollo 15 was considered a baffling “puzzle” to Berry and the other flight surgeons at that time [3].


William J. Rowe MD FBIS

Virginia, USA




  1. W.J. Rowe, The Apollo 15 Space Syndrome, Circulation, 97, (1998) pp. 119-120
  2. J.B. Irwin, To Rule the Night, The discovery voyage of astronaut Jim Irwin. Philadelphia, Holman (1973) pp. 72-74.
  3. R.S. Johnston, L.F. Dietlein, C.A. Berry, eds. Biomedical results of Apollo, Washington DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1975, 227-264, 573-579, 581-592, NASA SP-368.