The Deaf Men Responsible for Space Travel: The Gallaudet 11.
If I was more prepared and organised, I would have researched and written this in time for the 50th anniversary of lthe Apollo moon landing in July. But I'm not, so I didn't. Happy end of August!
By the late 50s, the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine was fully engrossed in the effects of the space race. Since 1947 they had been the driving force of researching the medical effects of space travel on humans, but the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 had spooked the Americans, and they doubled down in their efforts.
Alongside the Navy, they were studying the effects of motion, gravity and weightlessness on people, but there was a problem (and not just that they weren't actually in space and so to an extent they were making it all up):
Everyone was getting motion sickness.
They needed to test how humans could cope with the conditions, but if every test had to be stopped before the point where it was helpful because they were so sick, how would they ever know whether it was even possible for humans to survive in space?
They needed some people who were immune to motion sickness and they soon puzzled out a solution. People who had become Deaf due to spinal meningitis had had their inner ear physiology completely changed by the illness, and didn't ever get motion sick for reasons that still aren't fully understood. (The causes of motion sickness are still debated. Not as hotly anymore as it used to be, but at least lukewarmly.)
In 1958 the Navy School of Aviation Medicine in Florida brought in Pauline Register Hicks, the "original Pensacola guinea pig", for research. Later that year, the projects longest serving subject joined, Robert Greenmun. It was Greenmun's suggestion that the research team could seek additional Deaf test subjects at Gallaudet College. In 1961 the team sidled up to the campus to find willing and able men who had become deaf due to spinal meningitis and recruit them to the cause.
The men would later say that since they were unable to serve in the army during the war, they felt like this was their way of serving their country.
More than 100 students and staff signed up for the screening process at the college, which included spinning in chairs, balance tests and having cold water poured in their ears, in a test that was used for draft dodgers during the war who claimed to be Deaf.
The research team didn't necessarily need these men to be Deaf, just to be able to withstand the intense conditions, and to have good writing skills to communicate what they felt. It just so happened that they were in fact all deaf. "We were different in a way they needed," said Harry Larson, another member of what became known as the Gallaudet 11.
The full Gallaudet 11 were: Robert Greenmun, Harry Larson, Harold Domich, Barron Gulak, Raymond Harper, Jerald Jordan, David Myers, Raymond Piper, Donald Peterson, Alvin Steele, and John Zakutney.
All of the men had become Deaf from spinal meningitis, except one. Greenmun could sense a small amount of motion, and so in order for his participation in the study to have the greatest impact, he offered to find a doctor willing to perform a surgery to remove all of the parts of his inner ear that might impact his sense of balance and motion.
He said that "the results of that operation will be so valuable to research and a real contribution to knowledge...it would be very wrong of me to shirk what I feel is a real responsibility". Amazingly the Navy weren't on board with messing around with someone's inner ear just for some research, and so the request was denied, with the excuse that they couldn't assess the impact long term.
The tests were designed to test the subject's balance and adaption to the wide range of environments, without all the motion sickness getting in the way.
In 1964, four of the men were sent to The Coriolis Acceleration Platform. This was a 20-foot rotation room which spun at 10 revolutions per minute for 24 hours a day, for 12 days. It would stop briefly each morning to bring in more food and supplies and let the Navy Lieutenant in charge get on, and then again in the evening to let him get off.
The room had all the things they needed, and inevitably some they didn't. It had a mini kitchen, bathroom, table and chairs and a not insignificant amount of scientific equipment.
They were measuring walking (difficult at first what with the spinning pulling them outwards), cognitive function (memorising codes to unlock keypads) and physical dexterity (tossing darts, which sounds kinda risky).
They slept with their heads towards the centre of the room, and the participants later described it as "a lot of work". Which isn't surprising really. There was a hearing group of participants who all took part in a similar experiment, which made many of them extremely ill.
Inevitably, they all went on those famous zero G flights in the well known plane known as the "vomit comet", to try and understand how body orientation and gravitational cues affected each other.
But the best experiment story began on a small ferry off the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada. The area is well known for very aggressive sea storms, being where it is sticking out into the Atlantic ocean. The researchers wanted to test whether the subjects would report adverse effects from the rough seas, but they struggled to take the men's reports, as they were overcome by near constant seasickness and the test had to be cancelled.
The Deaf men meanwhile had a lovely time, playing cards and chatting with no illness or any negative impact, although with the storms as severe as they were, Gulak later said “in retrospect, yes, it was scary…but at the same time we were young and adventurous.”
The sheer variety of a lot of these tests was impressive, from walking on beams to test balance to a machine they got strapped in which spun and tilted all of them as they were made to cover one of their eyes and find the horizon.
At one point, their test was to repeatedly ride the super fast lift in the Empire State Building in New York to try and force them to experience motion sickness. It didn't work. It was almost like they'd picked some test subjects who were immune to motion sickness?
There were also plenty of less fun sounding ones, like Zakutney who was put in a chamber with one of the researchers who was wearing an oxygen mask. Zakutney wasn't, which is immediately concerning. They removed air from the chamber, and he had to write his name over and over again until it became unintelligible, after which the researcher took off the oxygen and gave him a go with it.
During all of these studies, the researchers were measuring the subjects' physical reactions with heart monitors, and taking blood and urine samples. They also gave them vodka, but I'm assured that that was for a very good reason during intentionally disorientating tests to study balance. You certainly learn a lot of things about balance by giving someone a load of vodka.
But with some of the experiments, there was no means of actually recording objective details, whether electronic or mechanical, and so they were relying on the subjects themselves to document what was happening.
This was at a time where there was really no such thing as a career as a sign language interpreter, any translation was done by family members or friends and "interpreter services was neither a right nor expected by our group.”
For all the studies "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," but the entire group was insistent that "this lack of interpreter services was a reflection of the times rather than any denial of that need for the services."
As a result, the Gallaudet 11 agreed to take part in the studies with “limited preparation and understanding of the tasks at hand.” Of course now, this would be considered a lack of informed consent and at best ethically problematic.
Their dedication to 'serving their country' in this somewhat atypical way allowed NASA, over the ten years of ridiculous experiments, to understand the capability of the human body to adapt to space travel.
Many years later, some of the subjects met John Glenn, a fighter pilot and first American to orbit the earth. He had heard of this group of research subjects and their inability to get motion sickness no matter how much they tried. He was not shy in expressing his envy.