Little Known Story of the Deaf Men Who Helped NASA Get Into Space

The story of the American space program and the organized effort it took to launch astronauts into space and, eventually, onto the moon is a remarkable tale of people from all walks of life coming together to achieve a great mission.

The contribution of several remarkable women was portrayed in the recent hit movie Hidden Figures, and now Discover Magazine has the account of a group of men who, up until now, have been unheard of in the tale of the exploration of space.

Silence is Golden

As NASA was emerging from its nebulous beginnings, the agency had to contend with an exhaustive list of variables to be figured out before mankind traveled to the heavens.

One of those variables was involved the sensory conflict theory. Discovery Magazine writes that this “is basically a conflict to what your eyes see and what your vestibular system feels.”

Your vestibular system is made up of your inner ear, auditory and optical nerves, hair cells in the ear and the brain.  The system is important in achieving bodily balance in our gravitational environs.

“When it comes to space,” explains Discovery, “this system stops getting gravitational cues that distinguish up and down, but your eyes still see things normally. It’s another set of conflicting information that can lead to a space sickness akin to seasickness. Which leads to nausea.”

Scientists turned to a cadre of eleven deaf men from Gallaudet College, aged 25 to 48-years-old, in an effort to determine the effects of space travel on the vestibular system.


The Gallaudet Eleven

The participants; Harold Domich, Robert Greenmun, Barron Gulak, Raymond Harper, Jerald Jordan, Harry Larson, David Myers, Donald Peterson, Raymond Piper, Alvin Steele, and John Zakutney, were subjected to intense tests that included being placed in a rotating chamber for 12 days, riding the ‘Vomit Comet’ and being tossed about aboard a ship on choppy waters.

The men, dubbed the Gallaudet Eleven, were used as a baseline group because they were immune to motion sickness. Ten of the eleven men lost their hearing after suffering from childhood spinal meningitis. The disease causes “lasting damage to the vestibular system of the inner ear by killing nerve and hair cells, the structures that are vital to giving our brains information about motion, balance, and even spatial orientation.”

Critical Work

Due to their immunity to motion sickness, these men were able to fully test machines and training methods that would be used on astronauts. The group could let scientists know of any serious physical harm the tests might cause without having to halt the study due to nausea.

The efforts of the Gallaudet Eleven were paramount in helping to develop this nation’s space program.

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