John P. Meehan, MD: Scientist and Diplomat to the USSR

President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR not only had their red telephones so they could communicate on a moment’s notice, but also were “pen pals” of a sort.  They scribbled notes to each other that were probably taken to their offices through diplomatic pouches.  This was most likely the means by which Kennedy convinced Khrushchev to share information about space medicine, although people in both nations were assured that no such agreement was ever reached.


It was in 1962 that Dr. John P. Meehan was asked to fly to the USSR to meet with Soviet scientists who were working on the USSR race to the moon.  Dr. Meehan, known as Pat to his friends, endured many uncomfortable flights through the black night skies from Southern California to Moscow or Baikonur (Siberia) during the next nine years.  It was his job to share his knowledge of space medicine with the Soviets in order to keep cosmonauts alive in space.  Soviets got ahead of the US in rocketry engineering but lagged far behind in medicine.  When Pat was in the US he worked with NASA to do the same thing.  When he was not doing either, Pat was a professor of physiology at the University of Southern California.  He retired as chairman of that department.

And, when Pat returned from each flight to “the other side,” he was interrogated separately by two US intelligence agencies.  NSA admitted that Pat was a contractor to them for the years 1962 to 1971.  He was able to add large amounts of information to what the US already knew about the Soviet space program.  The Soviets did not know that Pat was well versed on rockets as well as space medicine.

Pat was not allowed to be seen on public air liners, so special arrangements had to be made to get him inside the USSR without being seen.  These flights were sometimes dangerous, but his most fearful experience came when Premier Khrushchev was removed from office and Premier Brezhnev took over.  Pat did not know for certain whether he would be arrested or welcomed on his next flight to Moscow.  This all took place during the Cold War.  As it turned out, he was welcomed and Brezhnev, who was said to never talk with the West, did.  Historians might wish to reconsider their positions on this point.

Over the years Pat made many friends with Soviet scientists and also with Soviet  cosmonauts.  He was fairly close to Yuriy Gagarin (possibly the first man in space) and Alexei Leonov who made the first space walk.

Pat’s clandestine trips to the USSR ended in 1972.  But in 1975 he went back to the Baikonur space program station to receive a “hero’s welcome” for his contributions.  Now that the US and Russia are cooperating on many more space projects it is easy to credit the groundbreaking work that Pat did to ease tensions between the two super powers.

My book The Insider told Pat’s story as part of a novel.  However, it is now possible to reveal the name of the real man who was so very brave and patriotic when his country needed him.  While he did not get to fly the rockets as some did (and get much deserved glory), he was a hero in every sense of the word.