What scientists haven't solved and hot-shot pilots won't talk about.
- By William Gregory
- Air & Space magazine, May 2002
(Page 4 of 4)
Astronauts Turn Green Too
The congressmen wanted to know if John Glenn had gotten nauseous while journeying in space. His Russian counterpart, Gherman Titov, had gotten very sick on his 1961 Vostok 2 flight, but Glenn insisted, “Oh no, of course not.” Later the American let slip, “It’s not so bad once you get used to it.” Well, if there’s no problem, what is there to get used to, asks flight surgeon and motion sickness researcher Captain Angus Rupert, after telling the tale.
After decades of putting up a macho front, U.S. astronauts are finally fessing up to their struggles with motion sickness. In a recent report on space physiology, Deborah Harm of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, found that U.S. astronauts reported no symptoms with Mercury and Gemini, but the number of crew members reporting symptoms rose to 35 percent for the Apollo program and 60 percent for Skylab. Currently, Harm and her co-workers write, ”it is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of all shuttle crew members experience some symptoms of motion sickness.”
Harm says astronauts still don’t talk much about ”flashbacks” and spaceflight illusions. Sometimes in space they wake up and can’t sense where their legs and arms are. One Russian cosmonaut went to sleep on the Mir space station with his arms folded and when he woke, he was certain that they were still crossed; in fact, they were raised straight up.
Sometimes illusions persist after landing. One astronaut reported that on his first night back on Earth, he had the sensation of rolling over in bed, so he grabbed the edge of the bed to keep from ”falling” onto the floor. All the time he was lying flat on his back. Some astronauts report that while climbing stairs, they feel the stairs are coming toward their feet, rather than vice versa.
”Astronauts are missing the key most important piece of information: where is down,” says Rupert. ”On the ground,” he adds, ”left and right, up and down have meaning. But not in space. People get disoriented very quickly.”
When astronauts lose their reference point in space, they instinctively choose to align with either the visual scene around them or their bodies’ vertical axis. The former group have symptoms that are more severe and last much longer in spaceflight than the latter, says Harm.
The Johnson center has two simulators that help prep astronauts for situations in which the inner ear may feel a tilt but the eyes see everything as linear. And when the eye and ear don’t agree, motion sickness can kick in, even among the most experienced astronauts.