Sickening space travel

Jake Garn is a US politician who served as a Republican senator from 1974 to 1993. However, he seems doomed to be remembered not for any political achievements but for an unwitting  contribution to the study of motion sickness in astronauts.

Space motion sickness occurs because changes in gravitational forces affect spatial orientation. Physiological processes in which the human balance system plays a part need time to adapt to weightlessness. Until adaptation is complete, generally after two to four days, space travellers can experience nausea, visual illusions and disorientation.

Senator Garn flew as a payload specialist on a 1985 Space Shuttle mission — the only sitting member of the US Congress to travel into space. Part of his role was to be subjected to tests designed to increase the understanding of space sickness. Unfortunately for the senator, his sickness was so severe that the Astronaut Corps adopted his experience as the standard for the maximum possible level of space sickness. They devised a scale on which being totally incapable was dubbed 1 Garn. Most astronauts apparently reach no more than 0.1 Garn.

Modern antinauseants can counteract space sickness but are rarely used. It is thought better to let space travellers adapt naturally over the first day or two rather than to suffer the drowsiness and other side effects of medication.

However, because vomiting inside a space suit could be fatal (as well as somewhat messy), astronauts normally use a transdermal dimenhydrinate patch when they have to don a suit as a safety measure during launch and landing.

And since space suits are also vital for extravehicular activities, space walks are not normally scheduled until a few days into the mission, to allow time to adapt to weightlessness. But even astronauts with low Garn ratings typically apply an antinauseant patch as a precaution during a space walk.

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