31 January 2013, 12:00
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One and Only

This is one of those rare cases when the exclusivity of an article is not confined by the interview and the story. The word “exclusive” in this case may be used in several occasions: to define a personality, a man and his actions. Yerevan Magazine is honored to introduce to its readers the exceptional nature of one man to whom even the sky is not the limit – literally.

March 13, 1989 Kennedy Space Center, Florida

NASA was getting ready for the launch of STS-29 Space Shuttle Discovery. The launch was initially scheduled for February 18, but was delayed until the month of March to eliminate the chance of potential malfunction of three main engines on the shuttle. The crew of the STS-29 Discovery was all set for the flight after having a preflight breakfast in coats and ties. This was the third mission since the tragic accident of the Space Shuttle Challenger that took the lives of its seven crew members in January of 1986. One of the astronauts of STS-29 Discovery, Dr. James Philip Bagian, was initially scheduled to be on board the ill-fated Challenger, but several months before the scheduled launch there was a change of plans and Bagian and his crew switched places in the schedule and didn’t fly. Later, Bagian would become one of the key investigators of the Challenger accident, helping during the salvage operations of the Space Shuttle crew module. Following that, he was responsible for the development and implementation of crew survival and escape equipment used on future shuttle missions. The list of Bagian’s contributions to NASA cannot be summed up in one article, yet in his interview with Yerevan Magazine, Dr. Bagian confessed that his biggest accomplishments probably came after his time as a NASA astronaut. Indeed, Dr. Bagian’s career after his retirement from NASA proves to be just as valuable and prominent.

All That It Takes

Dr. Bagian, who started his career with NASA in 1980, said as we began our conversation, “While, as a young boy, I always had wanted to be an astronaut but had put that idea aside by the time I was 12 years old as unrealistic. I didn’t think again of becoming an astronaut until I was in medical school. That was when I became aware that NASA was looking for Space Shuttle astronauts. I completed the application, sent it in, and was invited for the interview. I was ultimately selected as a mission specialist astronaut.” How simple is that! A medical student submits an application and becomes a NASA astronaut. But, in reality, Dr. James Philip Bagian was no ordinary applicant.

Besides being a medical school graduate, Bagian, still in his twenties, had a pretty impressive background and work experience. After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Drexel University, he worked in the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and Development Center designing ejection seats. In addition, he had experience piloting high performance jet aircrafts. “I think it was the combination of all these things that made me stand out during the interview,” was Bagian’s modest conclusion. An engineering background, experience in the aerospace industry, being a physician, and having mechanical aptitude. The list obviously clarifies what it takes to be admitted by NASA as an astronaut.


Having undergone a series of the toughest trainings in the past, the hard-to-endure challenges of the astronaut training program were nothing new to young Bagian. “To me, it was like any other training. There were no special challenges,” continued Bagian in the same casual tone, telling an absolutely non-casual story.

“I happened to be a physician, but most of the things I did were engineering- related. In some missions, I was in charge of satellite launches. In other missions, I was conducting scientific and medical experiments.” In fact, mission specialists are often physicians or engineers, but Bagian carried out the duties of both. James Bagian has had two space flights. During the first flight in 1989 that lasted four days, 23 hours, and 39 minutes, the crew deployed a tracking and data relay satellite, and performed various experiments. They conducted studies on the changes of cerebral blood flow and its relationship to the Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS) and Space Motion Sickness (SMS). SMS produces symptoms that resemble sea- sickness and affect approximately 75% of all astronauts on their first flights.

In 1989, Dr. James Bagian was the first to treat SMS with the drug Phenergan by intramuscular injection. Bagian’s treatment was adopted by NASA at that time and continues to be the only treatment used as there has not been a better one developed in the last 23 years. Bagian’s second space flight took place two years later on board STS-40 Columbia in June of 1991. It was the first Space Shuttle mission dedicated to life science studies. During this mission that lasted nine days, two hours and 14 minutes, the crew performed experiments to determine how the heart, blood vessels, lungs, kidneys, and hormone-secreting glands respond to microgravity, the causes of space sickness, and changes that occur in muscles, bones, and cells in humans during space flight.

That time Dr. Bagian’s exceptional skills and ability to improvise in the most challenging situations helped the crew to complete the important experiment. “We had a failure of one of the pieces of equipment that made it impossible to do one of our experiments,” Bagian recalled. “I woke up in the morning with the thought that I could fix it with the equipment that was in the medical kit: needles, syringes, etc. That was something we were never trained to do – I just improvised and it worked, so we were able to finish the experiment.” “What view impressed you most as you looked out the window of the spaceship during your first flight?” I asked Dr. Bagian. He responded, “I was amazed that even at an altitude of 185 miles, one still could make out a tremendous amount of detail. You can see runways for airports, power line towers, many streets, cargo ships. You can see more than you would think. To me, that was the thing that no photo could serve justice to.”

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