Sick in Space
It’s not just a problem for astronauts anymore.
- By Michael Klesius
- AirSpaceMag.com, March 09, 2009
(Page 2 of 3)
“Just because the Apollo guys didn’t report it doesn’t mean they didn’t feel it,” says former astronaut Owen Garriott. “They had a job to do and needed to press right ahead. But I do think the majority of the Apollo people felt it.”
Then came Skylab in 1973-74, when three crews of three astronauts each lived in Earth orbit aboard a modified third stage of a Saturn V rocket. About 20 feet by 30 feet, it was a gymnasium compared to anything that had preceded it. Garriott, who went up with the second group, remembers that even seasoned moonwalkers like his commander, Apollo 12’s Alan Bean, couldn’t hide their space sickness in the cavernous interior. His other crewmate Jack Lousma lost his lunch on day one. “Lousma was the worst of us, because his job was to be the first one into the big-volume dome of the orbital workshop.” Garriott claims his own adjustment took a few days. “We slowed down and tried not to work so hard. Tried not to move around so much.”
Oman claims that Skylab forced the issue. “Five out of nine got sick,” he says. “So NASA said, ‘Whoa, this is not some strange disease of Russian cosmonauts.’ ” Crew members on board Salyut, the Soviet space station, had been dealing with similar problems, he says. “Then space motion sickness came out of the closet in the first 50 shuttle missions.”
On Garriott’s next spaceflight, aboard space shuttle STS-9, which carried the large-volume Spacelab-1 in its cargo bay, he was first in after the vehicle reached orbit. He met the same fate as Lousma a decade earlier. “The adjustment was similar, except that I threw up, which I didn’t do on Skylab,” he says.
The simplest explanation for space sickness mirrors that of car sickness. It’s a sensory conflict in which the semicircular canals and otolith organs of the inner ear, which make up the vestibular system, tell you one thing—for example, that you’re moving—while your eyes, fixed on a book in the car or an instrument panel in the shuttle, tell you that you’re standing still.
A fundamental difference is that in a moving car, or even in the high performance T-38 supersonic jet that astronauts use to train, you’re still subject to Earth’s one-G pull. In orbit, you’re in continuous freefall, which just can’t be duplicated on Earth. People who can tolerate motion sickness on Earth sometimes suffer the most from space sickness. And the common pale face that precedes a bout of retching on Earth doesn’t happen in space because of the fluid shift upward.
There are few good predictors of who will suffer space sickness. But statistics show that between 70 percent and 90 percent feel it in some form on the shuttle, and about one in ten suffer severe symptoms including retching. Senator Jake Garn became the poster child of the puking shuttle flier on STS-51D in April, 1985, and astronauts now jokingly use the “Garn Scale” to rate their own severity.
Oman claims that vision plays a complex role in space sickness. “What seems to be happening in weightlessness is that when you put your feet toward the ceiling, something fundamentally changes. Your brain says, ‘Wait, that’s supposed to be the floor down there.’” Like the famous Necker Cube perception riddle, the orbiting brain goes through a series of visual illusions during its first days in orbit.