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Reading up on the beginnings of human spaceflight, I came across this line on Wikipedia:

[Vostok 1] was flown in an automatic mode as a precaution; medical science at that time did not know what would happen to a human in the weightlessness of space.

What did people think would happen to human beings in weightlessness? Ideally, I'm looking for medical opinions from before 1961, but any reference would be better than what I have right now.

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I believe the main concerns were in regard to whether an astronaut (or cosmonaut) would be capable of operating the vehicle. It was unknown to what extent motion-sickness and other nausea might impair the pilot's capacity. –  Pieter Geerkens Aug 14 '13 at 3:52
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I imagine there was, until actual evidence was acquired, every shade of opinion from, "no effect" to being "driven mad". For example when steam trains were developed it was thought that travelling a 30mph would suck all the air out of a humans body and they would die of asphyxiation being unable to breathe, especially when travelling through something like Brunel's Box tunnel –  PurplePilot Aug 14 '13 at 7:55
    
I think the main fear was that you would pass out, or get so bad motion sickness that you would be unable to fly, etc. –  Lennart Regebro Aug 14 '13 at 8:00
    
@coleopterist, thanks for the pointer. –  Joe Aug 16 '13 at 16:54
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2 Answers

NASA had known experimentally what near weightlessness felt like at least since 1959, when the famous "Vomit Comet" had enabled humans to experience the condition for up to 25 seconds at a time. This plane followed a nearly parabolic flight path to produce the sensation of weightlessness.

Hence there was no reason before the first human spaceflight to believe something terrible might happen to astronauts such as inner organs rupturing. Flight trajectory for a typical zero-gravity flight maneuver

Flight trajectory for a typical zero-gravity flight maneuver. Image credit: NASA (public domain)

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-1 1. That was NASA. 2. 25 seconds is not comparable to the hour or more that Gagarin was in orbit. –  Lennart Regebro Aug 14 '13 at 7:57
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x-15 15 mins of weightlessnes 1958 history.nasa.gov/SP-4201/ch2-3.htm also see the the research references quoted in the link as they are early scientific papers going back to WW2 –  James Woolfenden Aug 14 '13 at 14:02
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@JamesWoolfenden: Right, but even those 15 minutes were pretty inconclusive, and there is no indication the Russians has any information like that. –  Lennart Regebro Aug 14 '13 at 15:20
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They did put animals up first though. –  James Woolfenden Aug 14 '13 at 15:53
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@James I was thinking to use your references to expand on my answer (giving you proper credit, of course) but am prevented at the moment from carrying out on that plan. Hence I am hoping that you would write your own Answer and collect a dozen upvotes :) –  Eugene Seidel Aug 14 '13 at 19:18
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Before science, Speculation from Sci-Fi back to 1873 and Jules Verne "From the Earth to the Moon:Around the Moon"

Read it in full yourself from project Guttenberg here http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16457/16457-h/16457-h.htm the section in chapter VIII the neutral point starting: "From the moment they had left the Earth, their own weight..."

Then in 1948 - Dr. Hubertus Strughold "The father of Space medicine" having worked prewar and during, is the first researcher in field on the physical effects of weightlessness. He is editor of "German Aviation Medicine in World War II" the first published scientific work on Weightlessness in a chapter called “Man under Gravity Free Conditions” by Heinz Haber and O. Gauer [1,2]

References:

1.Benford RJ. German aviation medicine during World War II. Washington, DC: Superintendent of Documents, U. S. Government Printing Office; 1948

2.Campbell MR et al. 2007 Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine http://spacemedicineassociation.org/timeline/1949/Strughold%20Accomplishments.pdf

There is a wealth of information on the science of space medicine....

http://spacemedicineassociation.org

They have a timeline of space medicine here: http://spacemedicineassociation.org/timeline/timeline.htm

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These are some really great links, but in the future they might not last. If you fold in some of their information into your answer, it would be a very informative answer. –  Joe Aug 15 '13 at 16:38
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I was all poised to vote this up, but never came across the actual information. :-( –  T.E.D. Aug 15 '13 at 19:26
    
There is a lot of information on the sites indicated. I could repost their words verbatim or reword like a senior but i'm trying not to plagarise, the links are primary Sources and established sites/organisations. –  James Woolfenden Aug 15 '13 at 20:39
    
@JamesWoolfenden, since you're citing the sources for the information, there's no question of plagarism. –  Joe Aug 19 '13 at 17:21
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