Pilots can experience forces while flying that punish their bodies, and they can also find themselves in disorienting situations. A military pilot in a fighter jet will endure G-forces as they maneuver, resulting in a crushing sensation that causes the blood to drain downwards in their bodies, away from the brain. And someone at the controls of a plane or helicopter, even in more routine flights, can have their senses become discombobulated. One of the causes of the crash that killed Kobe Bryant in 2020 was “spatial disorientation” on the pilot’s part, according to the NTSB.
Then there’s being launched in a rocket up into space. One astronaut recalled to PopSci that when flying in the space shuttle, the engines shut down, as planned, 8.5 minutes after launch. “It felt like the shuttle stopped, and I went straight through it,” he said. “I got a tremendous tumbling sensation.” Another astronaut noted in a recent NASA press release that he felt like he “was on a merry-go-round as my body hunted for what was up, down, left, and right,” in the shuttle as well.
And of course, anyone down on Earth who has ever experienced vertigo, a sensation of spinning, or nausea, knows that those are miserable, even frightening sensations.
To better understand all the uncanny effects that being up in the air or in space has on humans, NASA is going to employ a Navy machine called the Kraken, which is also fittingly called the Disorientation Research Device—a supersized contraption that cost $19 million and weighs 245,000 pounds. Pity the poor person who climbs into the Kraken, who could experience three Gs of force and be spun around every which way. NASA notes that the machine, which is located in Ohio, “can spin occupants like laundry churning in a washing machine.” It can hold two people within its tumbling chamber. As tortuous as it sounds, the machine provides a way to study spatial disorientation—a phenomenon that can be deadly or challenging in the air or in space—safely down on dry land.
The NASA plan calls for two dozen members of the military to spend an hour in the Kraken, which will be using “a spaceflight setting” for this study. After doing so, half of them, the space agency says, “will perform prescribed head turns and tilts while wearing video goggles that track their head and eye movements.” The other half will not. All of them will carry out certain exercises afterwards, like balancing on foam. Perhaps, NASA thinks, the head movements can help. “Tests with the Kraken will allow us to rigorously determine what head movements, if any, help astronauts to quickly recover their sense of balance,” Michael Schubert, an expert on vestibular disorders at Johns Hopkins University and the lead researcher on this new study, said in the NASA release on the topic.
The study will also involve civilians who have pre-existing balance challenges (due to having had tumors surgically removed), who thankfully won’t have to endure the Kraken. They will also perform the head movements and carry out the same balance exercises. The goal of all this research is to discover if these head movement techniques work, so that “astronauts could adopt specific protocols to help them quickly adapt to gravitational changes during spaceflight,” NASA says.
Additionally, the same techniques could help regular people who aren’t going to be launched into space but do struggle with balance or dizziness down on Earth. Watch a video about the Kraken, below.