‘I wanted to serve’: These deaf men helped NASA understand motion sickness in space

Deaf men helped NASA

Extracted from The Washington Post – 5 May 2017 – By Sarah Larimer 

Video above: In the 1960s, 11 men with ties to Gallaudet University participated in a series of experiments on balance, motion sickness, and weightlessness to help researchers understand how humans could survive in space. (Gallaudet University)

Barron Gulak remembers one experiment, which did not take place in a lab.

In 1964, Gulak and the other test subjects for the research were sent out on a boat, which traveled through rough waters off the coast Nova Scotia.

Really rough waters.

Just super bad.

The ship rolled and pitched about in a storm, tilting back and forth. But those who’d volunteered for the research were immune to motion sickness.

“Honestly, it was a wonderful time,” said Gulak, who, along with the other research test subjects, is deaf.

It is, however, probably safe to assume that those who were conducting the research, who were not immune to motion sickness, did not share this view.

“We were enjoying ourselves,” Gulak recalled. “We actually had meals during the storm. And when they saw us eating, it made them even more sick, and they were vomiting.”

Deaf test subjects prepare for zero gravity flight
Deaf test subjects prepare for zero-gravity flight. (Courtesy of Gallaudet University Archives, David Myers Collection)

For years, Gulak and others took part in research conducted by the U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine, conducted during the early days of the American space program more than a half-century ago. By extension, these test subjects helped NASA, which sponsored the work, according to Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian. They spent days in rotating rooms. They went up on parabolic flights, floating in zero gravity. And they rocked on that boat out in the angry waters.

“They were interested in researching balance and motion sickness, sea sickness and the like. That kind of thing,” said 79-year-old Harry Larson, who took part in the research. “Because NASA wanted to know more about how man could perform in a zero gravity environment.”

The research and the stories of the participants are detailed in an on-campus exhibit at Gallaudet University, which opened in April.

“I’m a red-blooded American,” Gulak said. “I wanted to serve our country the best that I could. Being that I’m deaf, I could not join the military. … It was my way of serving.”

The research has deep ties with Gallaudet University, the nation’s premier college for the deaf and hard of hearing. Many of those who participated were selected when officials came to the Washington, D.C., campus in search of test subjects.

“All of those experiments we went through, none of us got sick,” said 80-year-old David Myers, another participant. “There would be two groups, my group and the hearing group, and the hearing group, many of them would always get sick. And we never got sick. So that, essentially, was the whole purpose of research, was to find out ways to prevent motion sickness.”

David Myers - research participant
Research participant David Myers, in a head brace. “There was a metal cage that you would lay in, and it would sway left and right,” he said. The machine, he said, rocked him to sleep. (Courtesy of Gallaudet University Archives, David Myers Collection)

Here’s the gist of how this all came to be: In 1961, a doctor named Ashton Graybiel and other personnel from the U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine visited Gallaudet, Jean Bergey, associate director of the Drs. John S. & Betty J. Schuchman Deaf Documentary Center, said in an email to The Washington Post.

Officials tested more than 100 students, faculty and staff and narrowed the group down to a handful who were selected, which was mostly made up of students. The research with that group continued for years.

“All but one of the selected test subjects became deaf from spinal meningitis, which impacted their inner ear physiology,” Bergey wrote in an online post on the National Air and Space Museum website. “This meant they could endure motion and gravitational forces that make most people nauseous.”

She continued: “The ability to withstand intense movement turned the so-called ‘labyrinthine defect’ into a valuable research asset — no matter the test of equilibrium, the deaf participants simply never got sick.”

The test subjects, Bergey wrote, were selected for “weightlessness, balance, and motion sickness experiments.”

Harry Larson - research participant
Harry Larson in rotating room. (Courtesy of Gallaudet University Archives, Harry Larson Collection)

“Harry Larson, one of the research participants, explained, ‘We were different in a way they needed,’” she wrote. “Indeed, their difference made it possible for researchers to explore human reactions to weightless environments and extreme motion and to better understand the complexity of entangled human sensory systems.”

Bergey said in an email that she wasn’t aware of any other research projects that involved Gallaudet and the U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine or NASA.

Hearing loss wasn’t really a factor in the research, said Myers, one of the participants. Instead, those who were involved didn’t have a functioning vestibular system.

(Do you know what the vestibular system is? It’s a pretty neat thing, science-wise. The participants didn’t have functioning vestibular systems, which meant their balance and sense of movement were affected, and they didn’t get motion sick.)

Myers also explained in an email that this happened at a time when “interpreter services was neither a right nor expected by our group.”

“About the only interpreting made available was by hearing family members who by growing up in a deaf family learned sign language and could serve as interpreter for a deaf family member,” he wrote. “Some churches would ask family members to interpret church services for their deaf members. Interpreting as an occupation was unheard of as interpreter jobs did not exist.”

The group for Gallaudet, he wrote, participated in the research with “limited preparation and understanding of the tasks at hand.”

“Brief written instructions were often provided  which focused  mostly on what we were supposed to do rather than providing an understanding of the nature of the tasks,” he wrote. “This lack of interpreter services was a reflection of the times rather than any denial of that need for the services.”

(Some interviews for this story, including in-person conversations with Myers, Larson and Gulak, were done with through interpreters.)

Larson remembers when the Navy came to the Gallaudet campus, looking for volunteers to be part of a space research program. At the time, he was a senior at the university; it was the spring of 1961. Larson volunteered, he said, “just for fun.”

“Overall, I have to say, I was really pleased to be able to go on the different trips,” he said. “It was an adventure to us. We certainly weren’t thinking about any of the danger. It was more of like, fun things to do.”

Larson was also on the ship that was tossed in waters off Nova Scotia and remembers traveling to Ohio for zero-gravity flights. He recalled one project, in which he had to stand up against a post. He was strapped to the post with Velcro, it was the first time he’d seen the material. Larson said he spent hours like that, while others took pictures of his eyes.

“That was really tough,” he said, “just having to stand for that long.”

Myers, another one of the subjects, recalled a rotating room, where those involved in the research would stay — even to eat and sleep — for days. Initially, he said, it was tough to walk, but by the second or third day, the research subjects started to adapt.

“It was a lot of work. A lot of hard work,” he said. “For the [hearing group of participants], many of them got extremely ill in that room.”

Myers said he once met with John Glenn, a Marine Corps fighter pilot and the first American to orbit Earth. Glenn, he recalled, told Myers that he had heard about the Gallaudet research subjects.

“Once he got word that there was a group of deaf folks who would never get sick,” Myers said, “he quote ‘envied’ us.”

Research on this type of stuff can be found today at the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Laboratory, located at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Paul DiZio, an associate professor at Brandeis and associate director of the lab, attended the opening of the Gallaudet exhibit and told the crowd that the work of these research subjects comes up quite frequently, even decades later.

“The conversation gets difficult, and we forget where we are, and we say to ourselves, well, what do we know?” he said. “What it comes down to is what we learned from these people.”

Extracted from The Washington Post – 5 May 2017

Sarah LarimerSarah Larimer is a general assignment reporter for the Washington Post.

Follow @slarimer on Twitter