Dr. Howard Minners

Chief of Flight Medicine at the Launch of the Space Race

When Project Mercury astronauts Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on August, 21st, 1965, Dr. Howard Minners was among the first people to greet them. In his role as flight surgeon and chief of flight medicine at NASA-Houston from 1962 to 1966, it was Minners’ job to lead day-to-day tests, examinations, monitoring and overall health analysis of the astronauts from pre-launch to post-splashdown. He worked with most of the original Mercury Seven astronauts: John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and new astronauts as they came on board. He shared “The Right Stuff” with the whole Mercury and NASA-Houston team from the beginnings of the Space Race with the Soviet Union.

“It was an amazing and very important time for our country as we were full throttle into the Cold War and the Space Race,” says Minners, 85, who resides at Fox Hill with wife Eleanor. “I’m proud to have been a part of such an historic period. They were exceptional men, highly experienced aviators and test pilots backed by an outstanding team, the best in the world.” An Air Force major and flight surgeon, Minners was “on loan” to NASA as he describes the period. In addition to being physician to the astronauts, he sometimes served in Mission Control as America “pushed the envelope.”

“How well humans would tolerate zero-gravity, weightlessness and for how long was a big question,” Minners says. “You might have even needed gravity to help digest food and sustain proper blood pressure levels. At first we just didn’t know, but we did have some scares unrelated to health impacts. One was when Scott Carpenter overshot the target landing area and no one knew where he was for a while. Those were some harrowing minutes before he was found.”

Minners moved with Eleanor to Fox Hill in 2015 and not long after unpacking rediscovered his “space box,” a cardboard crate packed with newspaper clippings, photos and other memorabilia. He uses the materials in Mercury Project presentations he has made in Fox Hill’s Performing Arts Center as well in local schools.

Born in 1931 in Rockville Centre, Long Island, New York, Minners holds an A.B. from Princeton University; an M.D. from Yale University School of Medicine and a master’s degree in Public Health from Harvard. Following his service with NASA-Houston, he went on to a distinguished career. Among the many highlights are: Chief of the Geographic Medicine Branch and subsequently Associate Director for Collaborative Research with the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, National Institute of Health; Chief of the World Health Organization’s research office, Geneva, Switzerland; Assistant Surgeon General/Rear Admiral and Deputy Director of the U.S. Public Health Service Office of International Health and Science Advisor to the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Minners’ three years with the World Health Organization in Switzerland provided a special platform for him to help formulate health research objectives from a truly global perspective, which eventually led to another key post. “For 10 years at the U.S. Agency for International Development I was given the opportunity to establish new research initiatives in biotechnology, agriculture, environment and natural resources,” Minners said. “We focused on developing countries, which was very rewarding.”

Minners today remains well informed on the ongoing evolution of space flight and said increasingly prolonged travel presents both challenges and opportunities. “Astronauts in the Mercury program were up for a week or so, now it’s months or even a year,” he explained. “Extended flight periods pose more health questions, again related to zero gravity, along with psychological problems of isolation and adaption when returning to earth. But more is learned with every flight, and nearly 60 years later we are still very much in the exciting and exploratory stages of what’s to come.”