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Navy Doctor Becomes First Physician in Space

It’s a lot of fun to do something first. But I must say that space flight is so impressive an experience, that it’s worth doing whether you are the first or not.

~Capt. Joseph Kerwin, MC, USN

Capt. Joseph P Kerwin-First U.S Physician in Space
Capt. Joseph P Kerwin-First U.S Physician in Space

By André B. Sobocinski, BUMED Historian

Since the first American manned-space flight in 1961, 85 US Navy officers[1] have charted the frontiers of space and scientific research as astronauts. Of this impressive corps of interstellar pioneers only one has the distinction of the being the first American physician in space,[2] Capt. Joseph Peter Kerwin, Medical Corps, USN.

This past Memorial Day, marked the 42nd anniversary of Capt. Kerwin’s astronomical feat as part of the Skylab-2 mission. A pilot-physician, Kerwin was a six-year veteran of the Navy when he was selected to be one of NASA’s first scientist-astronauts in June 1965. Early in his NASA career, Kerwin would undergo rigorous course of “basic” training from a ten-day physical exam, learning space systems, and undergoing mission control simulation to underwater “spacewalks” in a neutral-buoyancy tank at Marshal Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

As the NASA’s lunar program was coming to a close in 1972, Kerwin was selected to serve as scientist-pilot for NASA’s fourth space mission, Skylab. Skylab was conceived as the first American space station and a platform for studying habitability in a gravity-free environment.

Kerwin performs physical examination in Space on Paul Weitz in June 1973--NASA Photo
Kerwin performs physical examination in Space on Paul Weitz in June 1973–NASA Photo

Kerwin and fellow crewmembers Charles Conrad and Paul Weitz would spend a total of 672 hours and 49 minutes aboard the Skylab station. They would also spend 3 hours and 58 minutes conducting extra-vehicular activities (EVA) to repair the damage the station suffered in orbit.

Kerwin, as the crew’s only physician, was also responsible for operating what could be called the first orbiting medical clinic. Equipped with an advanced medical kit called the In-Flight Medical Support System (IFMSS), Kerwin was prepared to manage minor injuries and illnesses and stabilize major problems should they arise. He would later recall, “I had intravenous fluids, drugs, a minor surgery kit for suturing, hemostasis, and I had a fundamental lab capability. I could even do cardiopulmonary resuscitation if it were necessary.” Fortunately, other than a few headaches, a dislocated finger and one case of fluid in the middle ear due to pressure change the Skylab crew proved very healthy.

The Skylab-2 mission came to a close on June 23, 1973. Kerwin would later go onto serve as NASA’s senior science representative in Australia and medical investigator of the Challenger disaster before retiring from both the Navy and NASA in 1987.

Six other Navy physicians would follow Kerwin into space as both mission-specialists and pilots.

SecNav John Warner awards the DSM to the crew of Skylab-2-Feb 1974


[1] This number includes former naval officers and astronaut candidates.

[2] Soviet cosmonaut Boris Yegarov made history as the first physician in space on October 19, 1964