A new galvanic vestibular stimulation system (GVS) allows astronauts to experience the feeling of "coming down" from outer space here on home soil.
The fact is that coming home from space isn't like getting off a cruise ship after a week. Sure, your legs are going to be unsteady in either case, but for astronauts, there are a number of serious sensory and mobility issues that can arise, making landing a shuttle safely on a runway instead of nose-first into that runway prohibitively difficult.
In response to this issue, which is difficult to train for owing to the presence of pesky gravity here on earth, Dr. Steven Moore of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute's (NSBRI) Sensorimotor Adaptation Team has helped to develop a GVS option that mimics the kinds of problems that pilots and crews will experience when returning to earth after long space missions.
This GVS technology has been around for a while, and uses electrodes tucked behind the ears to send electrical impulses to the vestibular nerve, which then shunts them along to the brain, freaking it out a little bit and causing odd motor and sensory effects.
Moore's new GVS system uses larger, 5 milliamp electrodes, and is also small enough to be carried around by a person, making it ideal for flight simulations. The disturbances produced by the device carry no long-lasting effects and do not appear to be cumulative over multiple trials.
The GVS: How very...stimulating.
Testing with current astronauts and pilots has shown that the device can produce sensations similar to that which are experienced when a shuttle is landed - most notably a less effective ability to judge speed - those under GVS tended to come in 6 knots faster than those who weren't , and a feeling that the shuttle was moving around, causing landing angles to be off.
Moore has tested 60 other subjects for their tolerance to the device, and the results showed that most people could take a great deal of GVS stimulation before crying "uncle!". There are concerns that the GVS system's effect may be resisted over time, but further testing is needed to confirm this.
The hope is to use the device not only as an analogue for returning-to-earth landings, but also potential landings on the red planet or other objects in our solar system.
All in all, a very stimulating concept.