NASA Assembled A Troop Of Deaf Men To Study Weightlessness
When NASA was first preparing to send people into space, they needed to learn how the human body responds to zero-gravity conditions. The good news was they had some rough means simulating such conditions, like sticking people in a room and then rotating it over and over. The bad news was that everyone they stuck in these simulators started vomiting before the scientists could get any useful data.
In time, NASA would figure out how to train its cadets to withstand these forces without getting motion sick (actual space travel, even outside simulators, also hits you with these forces). But for now, they really needed some people in zero-g for preliminary observation, just to make sure the absence of gravity doesn’t make your eyes fall out and brains leak out your nose.
They needed people immune to motion sickness. Such people exist, because motion sickness comes thanks to signals from your inner ear, and it’s possible to get a disease that ravages the inner ear: spinal meningitis. Finding people in the late ’50s who’d caught spinal meningitis was no trouble at all, since the disease jumps easily between people who live communally. It’s a threat even today. In Texas, for example, any college student who lives on campus must first get a meningitis vaccine, not just as part of school policy but as a matter of state law.
Motion sickness immunity is just one effect of what meningitis does to the ear, however. More noticeably, it leaves you deaf. And that was why NASA summoned eleven deaf men to help them study weightlessness.
The Gallaudet Eleven (named after Gallaudet College, where NASA recruited them), went through a bunch of different simulators, with varying intensity. Long-term study observed the Slow Rotation Room, which rotated 2–10 times a minute. An upgraded version of this room also shifted and tilted, and subjects lived there for weeks. Subjects also rode the elevator in the Empire Stare Building over and over, and flew in aircraft (known as the “vomit comet”) that swiftly rose and dove.
Throughout it all, the Eleven never got sick. Not all the experiments yielded useful data, though. NASA took the research subjects on a 28-hour trip through choppy Atlantic waters. The subjects still felt no motion sickness. But the scientists were vomiting too hard to conduct their experiments.
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Top image: NASA