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NASA researchers rely on the Kraken at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for answers to space motion sickness

In World
May 25, 2024

May 24—When the Disorientation Research Device stirs to life at the Naval Medical Research Unit Lab on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Area B, visitors will know it.

“It sounds like a hurricane, and it feels like an earthquake,” Richard Folga, engineering and technical support team lead at the unit, told recent visitors to the lab.

Almost on cue, a few moments later, a whine pierces the air and a low rumble pushes through the walls.

Smiling, Folga said: “I think you guys may want to walk in.”

Volunteers at the lab will soon have their chance to walk in. The Cleveland-area NASA Glenn Research Center has found volunteers to weather a ride on the on the Disorientation Research Device, dubbed “the Kraken.”

Stepping inside the Capt. Ashton Graybiel Acceleration Research Facility, it’s easy to peer down into a two-story-deep pit, where the $19 million GL-6000 DRD moves forward and back, a 4,500-horsepower roller coaster offering simultaneous motion on six axis, with horizontal travel exceeding 16 feet, capable of imposing sustained planetary motion of 3G — that’s three times the force of normal Earth gravity.

“It’s going to be moving very quickly,” said Folga, who retired from the Navy as a captain (equivalent to a colonel in the Air Force). “Our top g-field is three Gs, and that’s (movement) of 137 degrees per second. The device can do 150 degrees per second.”

The device is basically a nimble-but-intimidating centrifuge that creates realistic motion simulations, helping Air Force, Navy and NASA researchers understand problems of disorientation and endurance. Here, astronauts are trained in (among other things) getting their bearings in space, where “up” and “down” can be uncertain or ambiguous.

For this study, NASA Glenn and Johns Hopkins University researchers hope to better understand a technology that may help people weather disorienting situations.

In this NASA/John Hopkins study, the G force-levels will be relatively low. Volunteers may experience a little heaviness, with some minimum discomfort. They’ll be strapped into a seat, their heads immobilized.

“It will be physically challenging,” Folga said.

But those running the research don’t want volunteers to be uncomfortable to the point where they wouldn’t want to continue, he added.

On a recent visit, Folga was able to control the Kraken’s movements with what appeared to be an X-box controller.

“Really, it’s about motion sickness, this particular (study), and it’s space motion sickness,” he said. “Is there a counter-measure that can be used, is there a technology that can be used to help folks recover? When they come back from space, (astronauts’) bodies … have to reacclimate to the Earth’s gravity field again.”

This technology is being tested to see if it can help that process along.

At some point as NASA returns to the moon — and moves on, in time, to Mars — Folga expects Artemis-program astronauts to visit Wright-Patterson and the Kraken for training and research. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) researchers at Wright-Patterson, have long been helpful to NASA and Artemis.

The Naval Aerospace Medicine Research Lab has the volunteers it needs for this particular study. But the lab constantly has research happening that requires dozens of volunteers, men and women, for all kinds of studies.

Navy researchers have had a presence at Wright-Patt since at least the mid-1970s. A Navy toxicology unit was moved to the base from Washington, D.C. in 1976 to partner with a similar Air Force lab. An environmental health lab was already here when the 2005 BRAC — the Base Realignment and Closure process — began the process of moving another Navy science lab, the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Lab, to Wright-Patt, although initially not as a full command.

The combination of the environmental health effects laboratory with the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Lab created the NAMRU Dayton Medical Research Unit.

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