Astronomy and Space

NASA Measures Space Sickness With the Garn Scale

NASA Space Sickness Jake Garn Scale

One of the biggest honors a person can receive is to become the namesake of a unit of measurement. Daniel Fahrenheit, Andres Celsius, and Charles Richter are just a few individuals whose names have been immortalized by being applied as a label to the thing that is being measured.

Just such an honor was bestowed upon Senator/Astronaut Jake Garn when NASA unveiled the Garn Scale. Unfortunately for Garn, the thing being measured — and the reason his name was applied to it — is not a topic for polite dinner conversation.

Senator Jake Garn of Utah became the first sitting member of Congress to fly in space. He flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in April 1985. As a congressional observer and active member of the crew, Garn’s primary mission was to assist scientists in improving their understanding of space sickness. They could not have picked a better candidate.

Space sickness, like seasickness and car sickness, is caused by a disconnect between the signals sent to the brain from the balance and orientation centers in the inner ear. The symptoms range from mild disorientation and discomfort to extreme nausea and headaches.

Jake Garn NASA Garn Scale space sickness
Senator Jake Garn’s official NASA photograph for Space Shuttle Mission STS-51-D.

Even the most experienced aviators and astronauts can suffer from space sickness. Predicting who will suffer symptoms and to what degree those symptoms will manifest has been an elusive achievement. Garn was a veteran Navy combat pilot who had more flight time than anybody in the Astronaut Office at the time of his mission. He showed no space sickness symptoms during this astronaut training, even aboard the “Vomit Comet” aircraft that simulates the weightlessness of space. Despite this, he was not spared the ill effects of living in zero gravity.

Garn quickly distinguished himself as suffering the most extreme manifestations of space sickness yet recorded. Robert E. Stevenson, the “Father of Space Oceanography,” recalled Garn’s experiences, saying, “Jake Garn was sick, was pretty sick. I don’t know whether we should tell stories like that. But anyway, Jake Garn, he has made a mark in the Astronaut Corps because he represents the maximum level of space sickness that anyone can ever attain… He forever will be remembered by that.”

Watch the launch and landing of Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-51-D.

Because of Garn’s extreme reaction to zero gravity, NASA honored him with the “Garn Scale.” A zero on the Garn Scale represents no symptoms of space sickness at all. Most astronauts register a 0.1, meaning that they get about one-tenth as sick as Garn. Only one person has ever had the distinction of earning a 1 on the scale — Jake Garn, himself.

Now retired and 88 years of age at the time of this writing, Garn undoubtedly has mixed feelings about that mission of nearly 40 years ago. Hopefully, he feels a swell of pride in his heart at the thoughts of his contribution to science that will make up for the decidedly unpleasant sensations in his tummy.

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