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  Field Notes From
Surviving in Space



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From Author

Michael E. Long





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From Photographer

Cary Wolinsky



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Marsel Gubaidullin (top) and Cary Wolinsky
 

image: earth
Preparing for Space

Field Notes From Author
Michael E. Long
Weightlessness is very cool. After worrying that zero gravity would cause me to jettison the big seafood platter I ate the night before the flight, I wound up having the time of my life floating inside the Russian’s zero-gravity aircraft, the cavernous Ilyushin-76. No fear of flying. No seafood platter revisited.
The highlight was when my instructor, Major Boris Naidyonov, introduced me to the infinite tumble. He maneuvered me into a ball and spun me backward while I remained in the same spot. Faster and faster. One or two of his buddies joined in to vary my angle of rotation. This was a supreme experience. It was more fun than aerobatics, including inverted snap rolls, so we did the infinite tumble during the last two parabolas.
I’m glad NASA couldn’t grant my request to try the Vomit Comet. The Ilyushin has much more room to cavort.
Because Easter weekend was approaching, I had to interview 16 experts in three days. It was the worst interviewing experience I’ve ever had. Midway on the third day, I was experiencing a lapse in cognitive powers and decided to test them by taking an exam devised by NASA. Walter E. Sipes of Wyle Laboratories arrived to brief me.
The 15-minute test presents a suite of numbers and symbols on a computer that measure mathematical reasoning, visual recognition, immediate recall, short-term memory, and attention. See the number, see the diagram, make the association, press the right key. After establishing a personal baseline, astronauts will take it in space periodically to assess their performance. They repeat the test if they ever score below this baseline. If they fail a second time, NASA will suspect impairment—from toxic gas, for example—and intervene. There was no time for me to establish a baseline, so Sipes picked one. Fifteen minutes later he evaluated the results. I passed two tests, barely; failed two others, also barely; and failed the memory test magnificently, missing eight out of twelve questions. “We’re worried about you, astronaut Mike,” Sipes declared.
In a single day I went through all of MIT’s neurovestibular experiments, tests on the body’s balancing system. They put me in a stationary chair inside a cylinder with black and white lines. Then they rotated the cylinder to the right but, after a while, it felt like I was rotating left. From there they strapped me into a centrifuge and spun me around. When they turned on the lights I experienced what’s called nystagmus, my pupils darted back and forth uncontrollably. Then I walked along a little passageway, and when I stepped onto a platform on the floor it zipped to the right to throw me off balance.
When the machines weren’t testing me, the staff was. One assistant walked up behind me and zapped me on the shoulder, again to throw me off. Despite orders against spreading my legs for balance, I held my ground pretty well.


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