The 11 Deaf Men Who Helped NASA Reach the Moon


The contributions of Deaf people and Sign Languages to scientific progress are numerous, although sometimes it takes many years for these contributions to be recognised. This is the case of these 11 Deaf American men who, in the 1950s and 1960s, volunteered for a number of experiments on the effects of weightlessness and whose findings helped NASA reach the moon.

Hombres sordos conversando en un vuelo parabólico para el estudio de la NASA
Some of the deaf volunteers chatting on a Zero-G plane ready for a weightlessness flight (photo:  US Navy / Gallaudet University collection)


Selecting Deaf Volunteers

At the end of the 1950s, NASA had not yet left Earth. It needed to know, among other things, the effects of the lack of gravity on humans and thus better prepare future astronauts. To study these effects, NASA contacted the Gallaudet University, tested more than 100 Deaf people and recruited 11.

All but one of them had acquired deafness through spinal meningitis that damaged their inner ear vestibular systems so that they were "immune" to motion sickness. NASA researched the effects of weightlessness over a decade (1958-1968), observing why they did not react physically or psychologically to motion sickness. The experiments helped NASA understand how the human body reacts when the gravitational signals from the inner ear do not work. One of the volunteers, Harry Larson, said a famous quote:
We were different in a way they needed

John Zakutney, uno de los voluntarios sordos, al finalizar un experimento de la NASA, bajando de una cápsula de centrifugado
Deaf volunteer John Zakutney when taken from a centrifugal capsule (photo: NASA / US Navy / personal collection of David Myers)

They Were Tested in Extreme Conditions

Some of the tests were extremely hard, at least for one hearing person, but these 11 Deaf men never got sick. One of the most extreme tests was to put them on a boat off the coast of Nova Scotia in the middle of a storm with winds of over 70 km/h and choppy seas. While these Deaf men played cards and enjoyed one another's company, the NASA researchers themselves were so overcome with sea sickness that the experiment had to be cancelled. One of the Deaf volunteers said they even had meals during the storm "and when they saw us eating, it made them even more sick, and they were vomiting".

In another experiment, they spent 12 days inside a 20-foot slow rotation room, which remained in a constant motion of ten revolutions per minute. They ate and slept in the room all those days while it kept moving, where they had what they needed: a sink, a fridge, a heater, a shower and a toilet. At first, it was difficult for them to walk, but on the second or third day, they could walk without difficulty.

One of the volunteers also quickly went up and down, for hours, in the elevator the 370 meters of the famous Empire State Building in New York. They wanted to see how it affected his balance.

Jaula de metal en el que el voluntario David Myers se balanceaba continuamente
Deaf volunteer David Myers in a kind of metal cage that swung from left to right continuously. Myers actually thought it was a rocking chair that invited him to sleep (photo: Gallaudet University Archives, David Myers Collection)

And, of course, the famous zero-gravity flights in a special plane, which is called parabolic flight.

All these experiments were also done with hearing volunteers and they were always sick. But for the Deaf volunteers, the experiments were not hard. In fact, one of the volunteers, Harry Larson, said:
It was an adventure to us. We certainly weren’t thinking about any of the danger. It was more of like, fun things to do
In the following video you can see images of the experiments and interviews with Deaf volunteers (subtitles in English and American Sign Language):

Exhibition and tribute in 2017

This group of 11 volunteers was between 25 and 48 years old, was called "Gallaudet Eleven" and their names were:
  • Harold Domich
  • Robert Greenmun
  • Barron Gulak
  • Raymond Harper
  • Jerald Jordan
  • Harry Larson
  • David Myers
  • Donald Peterson
  • Raymond Piper
  • Alvin Steele
  • John Zakutney
In 2017 the Gallaudet University organized an exhibition and tribute to these intrepid 11 Deaf men, in which three of the volunteers were present. The exhibition was entitled "Deaf Difference + Space Survival".

The three men holding the scissors were NASA volunteers: Harry Larson, Barron Gulak and David Myers. On the left, Margaret Kopp, a student at Gallaudet University who organized the exhibition (photo: Jean Bergey, Universidad Gallaudet)

There is no doubt that the results of these experiments helped NASA better understand how to adapt the human body to the lack of gravity and motion sickness, an important contribution that helped NASA to launch the first human piloted spaceflight in 1961 and later, in 1969, to reach the Moon on Apollo 11.


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