Deaf Difference + Space Survival

March 16, 2018

Author: Jean Lindquist Bergey

"We were different in a way they needed."

That is how Harry O. Larson, ’61, summed up the reason he and other members of the campus community came to be involved in early space research -- a human difference made them invaluable to the US Naval School of Aviation Medicine and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 

Participation in weightlessness and motion experiments by deaf people was a little-known chapter in space science until the spring of 2017 when the Gallaudet University Museum and the Drs. John S. & Betty J. Schuchman Deaf  Documentary Center opened a new exhibition: Deaf Difference + Space Survival. 

In the late 1950s, the United States responded to the Soviet launch of Sputnik by investing in space science. NASA, newly formed, collaborated with the Navy to study the effects of motion, gravitational pull, and weightlessness on the human body. This research, critical to understanding how astronauts would function in space and if sickness might hinder future missions and endanger crews, needed people immune to motion sickness for tests of physical and cognitive function in settings intolerable to most. Individuals who became deaf from spinal meningitis, an infection that can impact the physiology of the inner ear, proved to be ideal candidates as they did not become sick from motion. 

Deaf test subjects first became involved when people associated with the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind (St. Augustine) traveled to Pensacola for studies at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine. In 1958, Pauline Register Hicks, teasingly called the "original Pensacola guinea pig," participated in the research for a short time. The "guinea pig" reference came from Robert Greenmun, ’36, the longest serving participant, who joined the same year. 

Greenmun suggested to U.S. Navy Captain Dr. Ashton Graybiel, who led the research, that he seek additional deaf test subjects at Gallaudet College. In 1961, Graybiel and a team came to campus to find willing and able men who had become deaf from spinal meningitis. 

More than 100 students, faculty, and staff signed up for the screening process, which included balance tests, spinning in chairs, and having cold water poured into the ear. Donald O. Peterson, G-’53, explained that researchers irrigated the ear while watching the eyes. "Our eyes never moved, even when the temperature of the water was 32 degrees," said Peterson. "They told us that the test was used to catch draft dodgers during WWII who claimed to be deaf, but were not."

Graybiel's team sought physically fit men who could withstand intense movement and gravitational forces, and had the writing skills needed to communicate what they noticed and felt. Being deaf was not a criterion for selection; endurance of motion is what mattered.
Ultimately, these 10 members of the Gallaudet community joined Greenmun, serving for the duration of the studies: Harold Domich, ’40, Barron Gulak, ’62Raymond Harper, ’64, Jerald Jordan, ’48, Larson, David Myers, ’61, Peterson, Raymond Piper, ’62, Alvin Steele, ’63, and John Zakutney, ’64.

Together, the 11 names are listed on charts and reports such as "Clinical Findings in Eleven Deaf Persons with Bilateral Labyrinthine Defects." This "Labyrinthine Defect" or "LD" label is one that members of the "Gallaudet 11" joked about in conversation. It was  precisely this "defect" that made them so  valuable to the space program. 

Experiments continued throughout most of the 1960s, usually with four to six participants in each round. One other Gallaudet student, James Bischer, ’66, participated in centrifuge studies in 1965. 

Greenmun, the only test subject who did not become deaf from spinal meningitis, sensed motion to a small degree. Because of this, he offered to undergo surgery to remove parts of his inner ear impacting motion and balance. "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," wrote Greenmun in 1961. 

The Navy denied the surgery, explaining that they could not assess the long-term impact. 

Above: Preparing for a zero-gravity flight are: Navy Lt. Commander Robert Kennedy, Barron Gulak, Alvin Steele, Robert Greenmun, John Zakutney, Raymond Piper, and David Myers. (Photo Courtesy of Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives: David Myers Collection)

Early experiments involved walking beams to test dexterity and balance. Later, contraptions that held the body rotated and tilted the men as they were tasked to find the horizon while off balance or with one or both eyes covered. A protective metal cage held bodies while swinging to extremes. Centrifuges spun the seated test subject at high speeds. 

Researchers constantly measured bodily reactions. Monitors tracked heart rhythm, and test subjects regularly gave urine and blood samples. During an intentionally disorienting experiment, vodka mixed with orange juice was drunk prior to balance studies.

One test involved repeatedly riding the express elevator of the Empire State Building in an attempt, unsuccessfully, to induce motion sickness. Zakutney described an experiment where he was in a chamber with a research aide who wore an oxygen mask as air was removed. Zakutney wrote his name repeatedly until it became a scribble, at which point the aide took off the mask and put it on him. Larson commented that one of the toughest challenges was being strapped with Velcro to a pole and standing for six hours, while a researcher took photos of his eyes. Through it all, the "LD" test subjects communicated their perceptions. Myers explained, "Some tests did not have a mechanical or electronic means of recording. In such situations it was important that we be able to document
in writing what we were experiencing." 

Access to communication and conversations was limited as no ASL interpreters facilitated communication; TTYs were not yet available, nor was captioning. 

In 1964, Greenmun, Harper, Larson, and Myers stepped into a 20-foot round room to start one of the longest trials. The Coriolis Acceleration Platform spun at 10 revolutions per minute, 24 hours a day, stopping only in the morning to replenish supplies and allow Navy Lt. Robert Kennedy to get on and then in the evening for Kennedy to step off. 

The rotating room had a stove, refrigerator, sink, toilet, shower, table, and chairs, and was stocked with scientific equipment. In this space, deaf test subjects lived for 12 days, completing multiple rounds of experiments. Walking was difficult at first as the force from spinning pulled the body outward. Testing cognitive functions in multiple ways, they typed in sequences on keypads and opened padlocks with memorized codes. Physical dexterity was measured by the ability to hold a stylus steady in holes without touching the edges, and tossing darts while spinning. Each night the men slept with their heads toward the center. Greenmun described it, "like spokes on a wheel." 

NASA had considered creating artificial gravity in space with capsules that spin and made rotation rooms to determine if that was feasible. Scientists had to learn how rotation might impact the stomachs, muscles, and minds of astronauts. Most hearing test subjects, including astronaut John Glenn, found constant rotation nauseating. With less stable stomachs, hearing pilots and astronauts endured many of the same experiments as the deaf test subjects. 

Zero-gravity flights tested reactions to weightlessness. "It was like being in outer space and a wonderful feeling (for us LD subjects, anyway)," wrote Peterson when describing the "sine gravitate" sensation. Few aircraft could perform the reduced gravity flight maneuver to create weightlessness. Planes that could were infamously known as "Vomit Comets." 

Some flights tested ocular counterrolling, when the eyeball rotates back due to gravitational pull. A camera takes continuous photographs of the iris, and by overlapping the images, the amount of counter rolling can be measured. Jordan described one such flight. 

"There was a doctor sitting, facing me while I rode backwards, and the pilot did aerobatics. Nothing happened, of course, except I had a great time." 

In February 1964, several of the "LD" test subjects traveled to Nova Scotia to take part in a test on the North Atlantic waters. On the wooden cargo ship Miquelon, they ventured into an icy, rolling sea and 40 knot winds. Gulak reminisced, "In retrospect, yes, it was scary...but at the same we were young and adventurous." Peterson, who filmed the trip, recalled looking out of the port hole to see "stars jumping up and down, left and right, in the night sky." Waves tossed the ship on the 14-hour trip, and the researchers became too ill to conduct experiments. 

The deaf test subjects never became sick. 

Above left: Donald Peterson, in a body cast bolted to a crane, is being lowered into a centrifuge water tank. (Photo Courtesy of Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives: Donald O. Peterson Collection). Above right:  Harry O. Larson leans forward to steady himself while spinning in the Coriolis Acceleration Platform. (Photo Courtesy of Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives: Harry O. Larson Collection)

Elaborate spinning devices, or centrifuges, of various sizes and design spun deaf test subjects. In one centrifuge test, each man had a body cast made just for him, and a crane moved and lowered them into a water-filled tank. With the seat and body cast bolted together, movement was limited; this minimized sensation within the tank as the armature spun. Test subjects attempted to find a green horizon line in goggles while spinning. 

During a test at a different site, Gulak and Bischer, separately, climbed inside a pod that was attached to the 50-foot arm of the largest centrifuge. Gulak explained that while in the spinning pod, "I had to draw my own blood." 

Studying all of these experiments became the passion of English and Government double-major Margaret (Maggie) Kopp, ’17. An intern with the Drs. John S. & Betty J. Schuchman Deaf Documentary Center, Kopp studied scientific journals, analyzed photographs, learned to conduct interviews, edit footage, and synthesize a much larger story so that it fit into the confines of an exhibition space. 

Above, left: Robert Greenmun adjusts equipment used to study counter rolling of the eyes. (Photo Courtesy of Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives: Jerald Jordan Collection).  Above right: Barron Gulak entering a centrifuge pod. (Photo Courtesy of Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives: Barron Gulak Collection)

Above: Video Services Operations Supervisor Patrick Harris, Barron Gulak, and Maggie Kopp check footage following an interview. (Photo Courtesy of Jean Bergey)

Documentary work demands original research, steady communications, collaboration, productivity and accountability. Kopp dove into the task and served as lead curator for the exhibition.

"I am so grateful to the bioastronauts who shared their amazing stories about this chapter of American history, and the families who donated photographs, personal letters, documents, and film," said Kopp. "This unforgettable experience helped shape my career plans. I also gained some friends and mentors I'll hold dear."

Adventurous, patriotic, and dedicated, the Gallaudet bioastronauts served the nation in a way no one else could. They helped researchers unravel human sensory systems and learn how the body responds to extreme conditions. It was a contribution that they, uniquely, could make.

Above: In attendance at the opening of Deaf Difference + Space Survival are Maggie Kopp, student and lead curator; Dr. Bill Barry, NASA chief historian; Dr. Paul DiZio, associate director, Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Laboratory at Brandeis University; Gallaudet bioastronauts Harry Larson, Barron Gulak, and David Myers; President Roberta J. Cordano; and Provost Carol J. Erting. (Photo: Zhee Chatmon/University Communications)