NASA uses the US Navy’s Kraken device to simulate spaceflight

A view of the Kraken’s cockpit, a device that can be configured to distract those strapped inside. Parallel tracks on the left and right allow the cockpit to move forward and backward while rotating freely. Credit: US Navy

A monster of a machine is now allowing NASA scientists to study on Earth the disorientation that astronauts may encounter in space.

This machine is the U.S. Navy’s Kraken, a device that can vigorously spin occupants like laundry churning in a washing machine. A new collaboration with the Navy will allow NASA scientists to use the Kraken to build strategies that aim to ease motion sickness. Such strategies may not only help astronauts but could also offer treatment options for patients with balance issues here on Earth.

Astronauts may experience motion sickness on their launch into space and on their return to Earth. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, and vertigo – a feeling of spinning – which can make it difficult to carry out mission-critical tasks when landing or exiting spacecraft.

“Shortly after liftoff in the space shuttle, I felt like I was on a merry-go-round as my body hunted for what was up, down, left, and right,” said NASA astronaut Douglas Wheelock. “Crew must prepare for the confusion that they will likely undergo during these gravitational transitions.”

Enter the Kraken, a 50-foot-long, 100-ton platform at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. It can be configured to replicate different types of flight to disorient occupants through sudden shifts in roll, pitch, and yaw, superimposed onto horizontal and vertical lurches. A spaceflight setting on the Kraken will allow NASA scientists to study whether a specific technology, coupled with head movements, may help soothe the motion sickness experienced by some astronauts.

Step inside the Kraken, a disorientation device operated by the US Navy that NASA is using to test whether a few head movements can alleviate motion sickness. Credit: US Air Force

„When I first saw the Kraken in person, I was struck by how big and agile the machine was,” said Laura Bolweg, who manages astronaut health research at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. „With the ability to move in six directions on its axis, this device would be difficult to replicate on Earth.” Can simulate complex flight scenarios, including landing scenarios that can induce dizziness and nausea.”

In an upcoming study, NASA and Navy scientists will recruit 24 active-duty service members to ride the Kraken for 60 minutes. To simulate what astronauts experience when they first return to Earth, the Kraken will spin them at accelerations that reach three times the force of gravity.

A patient experiencing balance problems wears video glasses

A patient experiencing balance problems wears video goggles to measure head and eye movements. The dial he holds allows him to assess the extent of his motion sickness as he tests different head movements. A similar system is used after riders exit the Kraken. Credit: Johns Hopkins University

Once out of the machine, 12 volunteers wear video goggles that track their head and eye movements and perform prescribed head turns and tilts. The technology will capture metrics associated with motion sickness, including how much participants blink and changes in heart rate. Volunteers will also answer real-time questions about how they are disoriented and sick.

The rest of the Kraken Riders do not perform any head movement protocols. All volunteers will complete four tasks – standing on foam with their eyes open and closed to test their balance, their speed on a nearly 33-foot (10-meter) walk, their endurance on a two-minute walk, and the length of time they can stand and the time it takes to complete a walk test, which includes an obstacle course. Includes passing. Usually these tasks are easy, but after a ride, dizziness and poor balance can make them take longer.

„Anecdotal evidence from astronauts suggests that small head movements help restore balance quickly,” says Michael Schubert, a neurophysiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. „Experiments with Kraken will allow us to rigorously determine if any head movements help astronauts quickly regain their sense of balance.”

If validated, astronauts could follow specific protocols to help them quickly adapt to changes in gravity during spaceflight. More remote tasksSchubert said.

As part of a two-pronged strategy, Schubert’s team also aims to see if head movements can help patients with balance problems. In addition to riding the Kraken, 24 civilian patients will attempt to complete the same four tasks as service members. Half will make the same head movements as before, the other half will not.

Tumors have been removed from the inner ears of these patients, which involves cutting the central nerves to maintain balance. As a result, patients often experience dizziness and lightheadedness. „Confirming that head movements help patients in this study will allow NASA and the Navy to play an important role in bringing a new treatment to the public,” Schubert said.

„This study renews a partnership between our lab and NASA that spanned the space program in the 1960s and 1970s,” said Richard Arnold, director of the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Dayton, the organization that operates the Kraken. „We are excited to build on previous collaborations by solving operational problems faced by both Navy aviators and NASA astronauts.”

NASA’s Human Research Program, or HRP, pursues best methods and technologies to support safe, effective human spaceflight. Through science conducted in laboratories, ground-based simulations, and[{” attribute=””>International Space Station, HRP scrutinizes how spaceflight affects human bodies and behaviors. Such research drives HRP’s quest to innovate ways that keep astronauts healthy and mission-ready as space travel expands to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

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