Land Legs

After filing my thesis on 12 May, I truly believed that I would move right along to tackle the lists upon lustful lists of writing projects conjured up over the past several months. I figured that I’d be up and running in a jiff.

Right.

As part of the landing procedure, Astronauts perform a series of exercises in order to stave off the nausea and dizziness often induced by the spacecraft’s reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Such vertigo is caused by an acute rise in blood pressure, and even counteractive measures (such as the “anti-G” suits first worn in WWII) can’t entirely alleviate the so-called “greyouts” experienced during deacceleration.

While graduate school didn’t provide nearly as much occupational exhilaration as I suspect an astronaut must feel, I nevertheless feel a sort of kinship: I, too, have struggled to find my “land legs.”

Astronauts have difficulty performing cognitive tasks when traveling in microgravity—that’s the space between Earth and the moon—even after undergoing extensive training prior to departure. I learned this several weeks ago while participating in a NASA research study at the Ames Research Center. I was asked to wear goggles containing prisms that displaced my peripheral vision. Then, a psychology intern from UC Santa Cruz instructed me to walk a specific path through a maze of orange parking cones and white PVC poles protruding from the ground. Some of the poles had fluorescent pink bands circling around their middles, and I had to keep those markers to my left hand side. I was timed, and my mistakes (tripping over the cones, for instance) were recorded, too.

plato.jpg
My prism goggles weren’t nearly as fantastic as those pictured above

Though I was later informed that the goggles could be adjusted to obscure my vision completely, I only experienced a slight loss of vision that day—as if looking through a tunnel, to describe it more precisely. Even that seemingly insignificant adjustment threw off my balance, my ability to perceive my surroundings and to control my physical interactions with even the simplest constructed environment.

I stumbled a bit during the test run, knocking into the occasional pole, forgetting my right from my left (scary, yes). After a few practice runs, however, that path became habitual. My time improved each time I snaked through the course, and I made no mistakes during the actual trial. The data collected through these studies will help NASA develop better ways to prepare astronauts to perform accurately in micro and zero gravity.

My own perception has felt a bit blurry over the past month, and I do wish that I had a special suit to wear in order to protect me from discomfort in the realm of the unknown. At present count, I only have a few preventative wrist guards for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and a very hot pair of Bulgari glasses that cut the glare of the computer screen. They also make me look like the love child of Louis Farrakhan and some red lipstick wearing matriarch (or prostitute). Needless to say then, these tools aren’t quite cutting it.

And yet, there is hope: Though it may take a couple of months, astronauts always regain their footing. How else to move forward?

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Filed under Space, Visual Culture

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