Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Truly Trivial: Who does NASA's space sickness scale openly make fun of?

Astronauts acclimating themselves to space ada...Image via Wikipedia
Cosmonaut Gherman Titov owns a lot of records in the spaceflight history books: Youngest human to ever enter space (he was 25 during his Vostok 2 mission), first person to orbit the earth more than once (he did 17 orbits), and first person to vomit in outer space.

Most historians don't bring up that last bit, but it may be Titov's most important historical contribution. Titov's zero-g upchuck was the first documented case of space adaptation syndrome, known colloquially as space sickness. NASA records show that roughly 60 percent of all astronauts suffer from space sickness on their first flight. Symptoms include dizziness, disorientation, and the aforementioned vomiting, which can collectively render a space traveler useless or, worse, a danger to his vessel and his crewmates.

NASA actually has an informal scale for measuring the severity of any specific case of space sickness, one which is named in "honor" of a particularly ignominious victim of space adaptation syndrome. And no, it's not Gherman Titov.

Who does NASA's space sickness scale openly make fun of?

The informal space adaptation syndrome measurement scale used by NASA is known as the Garn scale, named for former Utah Senator Jake Garn. Yes, NASA actually named the space-vomit metric after a nationally powerful politician. And people wonder why they can't get funding for an Alcubierre Drive.

Garn was an official payload specialist on STS-51, the fourth flight of the space shuttle Discovery, which launched in 1985. This made Garn the first sitting member of Congress to travel into space. He is best known to space nerds as the single worst victim of space sickness in the history of human spaceflight. Garn spent much of the seven-day mission puking his guts out despite the fact that he was a former US Navy and Utah Air National Guard stratotanker pilot.

The highest level of space sickness on NASA's informal medical scale is known as 1 Garn, with all less severe cases measured as fractions or percentages of a Garn. Thus, if you're only half as sick as Garn was on Discovery, your space sickness rates as half a Garn, or 0.5 Garns.

Fiscal historians suggest that Garn's epic space vomiting was just karmic payback for the economic illness he wrought on the nation. Garn was one of the authors of the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, which deregulated the savings and loan industry and led directly to the S&L crisis of the 1980s. Uncool.

Garn also wrote a sci-fi/thriller novel, Night Launch, about a terrorist hijacking of the space shuttle that, based on its customer reviews, rates about 0.2 Garns in terms of quality. How's that for Truly Trivial?