May 2017 Science

Barron Gulak remembers one experiment that did not take place in a lab. In 1964, Gulak and the other test subjects for the research were sent out on a boat travelling through rough waters off the coast Nova Scotia. The ship rolled and pitched 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."

For years, Gulak and others took part in research conducted by the US 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 Harry Larson, 79, 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 were detailed in an exhibit at Gallaudet University.

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, DC, campus in search of test subjects.

Left: Deaf subjects prepare for zero gravity flight  Right: Research participant David Myers, is seen wearing a head brace in a machine that would rock him from side to side.

Deaf Men

deaf men

In 1961, a doctor and other personnel from the US Naval School of Aviation Medicine visited Gallaudet and tested more than 100 students, faculty and staff, narrowing the group to a handful, mostly 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. This meant they could endure motion and gravitational forces that make most people nauseous. 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 were selected for "weightlessness, balance, and motion sickness experiments."

Harry Larson, one of the research participants, explained, 'We were different in a way they needed, 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.” "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.” "All of those experiments we went through, none of us got sick," said another participant, David Myers, 80.  "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.”

VolunteersHearing loss wasn't really a factor in the research, said Myers. Instead, those who were involved didn't have a functioning vestibular system, which meant their balance and sense of movement were affected and they didn't get motion-sick. 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, ”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 travelling 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, 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 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 participants], many of them got extremely ill in that room.” Myers said he once met John Glenn, a Marine Corps fighter pilot and the first American to orbit Earth. Glenn told Myers that he had heard about the Gallaudet subjects. "Once he got word that there was a group of deaf folks who would never get sick," Myers said, "he quote 'envied' us.”

Three of the deaf volunteers from Gallaudet University.