Tag Archives: Deaf history

How 11 Deaf Men Catapulted the American Space Program Forward

On July 16, 1969, the United States’ Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

Man floats anti-gravity and sign says, Deaf Difference + Space Survival ... the exhibit is now open
How would people travel through space without spending most of their time sick? Deaf research participants would be key to finding the answers.
Picture of men sitting on an airplane and ABC post saying they are just now getting attention for their contributions.
Media has recently acknowledged G-11’s efforts, which for many decades went unrecognized.

The Apollo 11 flight may never have been possible if it hadn’t been for the contributions of 11 Deaf men who were Gallaudet College (now University) alumni.

From 1958-1968, and ending the year before men would land on the moon, 11 Deaf men volunteered to participate in a joint research program with the U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, according to an article in Knowridge Science Report.

Since they were Gallaudet alumni, they were called the Gallaudet Eleven, or G-11.

All but one of G-11’s members had become deaf early in their lives due to spinal meningitis, which damaged their inner ears in a way that prevented them from getting motion sickness. As far as space travel was concerned, motion sickness was a serious concern.

G-11 members took part in a variety of activities, including flying in airplanes performing parabolic arcs that created weightlessness, rough seas experiments, spinning room experiments, and more.

Did the experiments hurt?

According to a NASA article, participants didn’t get sick.

Man hangs upside and says I feel fine.
Researchers expected G-11 participants to not get sick, but they needed to understand how that happened.

“The only discomfort was in the pullouts after steep dives when we experienced from 4 to 6 G—if you tried to lift your arms, they weighed a ton,” said G-11 participant Robert Greenmun.

According to the G-11’s timeline, Greenmun never got sick, but had to nurse hearing Navy aides.

G-11: the envy of astronauts and doctors

Space wasn’t comfortable for people who could hear.

Astronaut and Senator John Glenn said he envied the G-11 because he got motion sickness in space, but they didn’t.

Even Earth’s Atlantic Ocean challenged hearing doctors, when Deaf volunteers didn’t get motion sickness on the rough ocean, but their doctors became sick and had to cancel the tests, according to the timeline.

Man signs that he and other program participants didn't have good balance because of the meningitis that had caused their deafness.
G-11 members enjoyed their participation and the challenges they faced.

“We always looked forward to seeing new experiments. It was an adventure for us,” said G-11 participant Harry Larson.

Larson had poor balance due to deafness from spinal meningitis, as did 9 other G-11 participants.

When being different makes the difference

The experiments helped improve the understanding of how our senses work normal cues for the ear aren’t there, as is the case with weightlessness, during gravitational forces, and at sea.

“We were different in a way they needed,” said Harry Larson, one of the volunteer test subjects.

G-11: NASA’s secret sauce

According to a WJLA report, Harry Larson said, “We were the only Deaf group to ever be involved in the history of the space program.”

Russia and the Untied States had competed to see which country would have a man set foot on the moon first.

Since Russia’s second cosmonaut got sick during flight, G-11 may have contributed to the the American program’s ability to land people on the moon before its Russian competitor, according to the report.

59 years ago and counting

Today, only five of the 11 test subjects are still alive.

2018 will celebrate 60 years since the G-11’s historic contribution to the U.S. Space program.

The Gallaudet Eleven’s roster:

  • Harold Domich
  • Robert Greenmun
  • Barron Gulak
  • Raymond Harper
  • Jerald Jordan
  • Harry Larson
  • David Myers
  • Donald Peterson
  • Raymond Piper
  • Alvin Steele
  • John Zakutney

From space history to museums

Some of G-11’s participants share their story in sign language.

On Apr. 11, 2017, Gallaudet University opened a museum exhibit, “Deaf Difference + Space Survival.”

Three of the 11 former study participants attended the exhibit’s opening: Harry O. Larson, Gallaudet class of ’61, Barron Gulak, class of ’62, and David O. Myers, class of ’61.

“Deaf Difference + Space Survival” is currently on display at Gallaudet University’s Jordan Student Academic Center, open Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.

Experience their story

See the open captioned and partial sign language video, “Deaf Difference + Space Survival” on YouTube.

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British swimmer adds record to Deaf swimming history

A man who completed the swim across the English Channel became the first person who is Deaf to accomplish the feat.

Deaflympics Tapei 2009 sign
Deaflympics are held every four years in host countries worldwide. photo credit: IMG_0029_34 “POWER IN ME !” HDR via photopin (license)

Andrew Rees completed the 21-mile swim from England to France to raise $6,000 via crowdfunding on Just Giving for Great Britain’s UK Deaf Sport’s travel to the next Deaflympics, which will be held in Samsun, Turkey on July 18, 2017.

Giant white cliffs over the English Channel.
Swimmer Andrew Rees began his historic swim across the English Channel in England and swam to France. The waters are cold and the conditions were rough. photo credit: The White Cliffs of Dover (NT) 19-04-2012 via photopin (license)

Rees represented Great Britain and won gold and bronze medals at swimming and water polo in the 1985 and 1989 Deaflympics.

According to his Just Giving page, “The English Channel is the Everest of swimming; in fact more people have successfully climbed Everest than swim the channel.”

Snow atop the peak of Mount Everest.
Fewer people have completed the English Channel swim than have climbed the 29,000 foot Mount
Everest photo credit: Mount Everest from base camp one via photopin (license)

While Rees has met his goal to support the swim team, the campaign is still accepting donations here.

According to the Channel Swimming Association, Rees, who is profoundly Deaf, swam against a strong tide and completed the swim in 15 hours and 14 minutes.

Of the 11 boats accompanying swimmers attempting to cross the channel that day, only two swimmers completed the swim, according to Rees’ Facebook page.

Woman wearing wetsuit assists child in ocean kayak in front of English Channel white cliffs.
Wet suits offer protection from cold Atlantic waters, but channel swimmers aren’t permitted to use them, though they may use grease as a cold barrier. photo credit: Cap’n Nancy via photopin (license)

According to strict standards for swimming the channel, Rees couldn’t wear a wet suit to protect him from cold waters, and he was stung by a jellyfish. The water was rough, causing him to swim three more hours than he expected. When he completed the swim, he could barely walk, according to a Brighton & Hove News article.

“For the last eight hours it was mad. There was a 23-knot wind. I was bobbing up and down. It took me a long time to get there,” Rees said, according to the article.

Galveston's Pleasure Pier has a Ferris Wheel and rides on a pier over the Gulf of Mexico waters.
Galvestonian Leroy Columbo set swimming records, saved lives, and helped start the sport of surfing in Texas. photo credit: Moonrise Over the Pleasure Pier via photopin (license)

Rees is one of many great swimmers who are Deaf, including Galveston, Texas’ swimmer and Guinness World Record holder Leroy Columbo (December 23, 1905—July 12, 1974), who swam 15 miles in the Gulf of Mexico in 11 hours, and saved more than 907 lives as a life guard, according to this blog.

Sign of Tarzan and King Kong with father and son walking in front of it.
Texan Leroy Columbo, a famous swimmer who was Deaf, beat Olympian and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller racing down the Mississippi. photo credit: Be care via photopin (license)

Unfortunately, Galveston was unable to raise funds for Columbo to compete in the Olympics, though Columbo beat Olympic medalist Johnny Weissmuller in a 10-mile swim race down the Mississippi River—though Columbo had a dislocated shoulder and finished the last two miles of the race one handed, according to articles in this blog
and in the East Texas Historical Journal.

Rees is giving his teammates the Olympic opportunity swimmers who were Deaf had little hope of receiving in generations past.

“The money he has raised will help our Deaflympic swimmers immensely, and his swim will also serve as an inspiration to them all,” said Great Britain’s Deaf Swimming’s chair, Brian Baxter, according to a a BBC Sport article.