Gallaudet University highlights NASA's deaf hidden figures

Gallaudet University highlights NASA's deaf hidden figures. (ABC7)

Last year, the Oscar-nominated film "Hidden Figures" put a spotlight on the overlooked African-American women whose math skills helped the U.S. space program get off the ground. In Washington on Tuesday, another group of hidden figures gathered for a small reunion.

These men were pivotal to a chapter of NASA history most Americans – and even most NASA employees – have likely never heard about.

Their names might not be known by most Americans, but Barron Gulak, Harry Larson and David Myers were NASA pioneers, patriots and unsung heroes.

Six decades later, they are now featured in a new exhibit at Gallaudet University – their alma mater.

“History is coming back to life in this exhibit,” Gulak said.

Myers added, “Seeing this, wow, it brings back some wonderful memories from 50, 60 years ago.”

Starting in 1958, Gulak, Larson and Myers were among 11 deaf men who became NASA test subjects.

They had all lost their hearing at an early age. And for all but one of the men, this hearing loss was caused by spinal meningitis.

“We were the only deaf group to ever be involved in the history of the space program,” Larson said.

NASA needed to conduct extensive research before any astronauts could rocket up into orbit, to ensure safe space travel and to understand its limitations.

Researchers found that extreme gravitational forces and motion impacted the organs of the inner ear, causing even the most experienced pilots to get sick.

But these deaf men were immune to that. And maybe because of their youth, they said they were also fearless – not scared to spin around in centrifuges, rotate for nearly two weeks in a circular room and free-float in zero-gravity flights.

“Looking back, I had tons of fun in our time,” Larson said.

“Floating around, it was a wonderful experience,” said Myers. “If [NASA decides today] to send a deaf person into space, I'd be the first in line.”

At the center of the Gallaudet exhibit, a spinning blue light on the floor shows visitors the rate of motion of the researchers’ Slow Rotation Room or SRR

Inside it, the test subjects spent 12 days in a row, undergoing a variety of cognitive and dexterity tests. Over that two week period, the motion would only stop briefly when supplies were re-stocked.

And the men slept on the floor of the SRR like spokes on a wheel, with their heads pointed toward the center of the room, so they wouldn't get pushed up against the wall at night.

This type of research is ongoing, overseen by professor Paul Dizio at Brandeis University. He toured the exhibit with the three test subjects.

“[Their] research accelerated the confidence and the timing of human space flight,” Dizio said.

It’s also believed that the research gave the American space program an advantage over the Russians.

NASA chief historian William P. Barry said, “They didn't fly anybody for over a year. And in the West, we didn't understand why. As it turns out, it's because their second cosmonaut got space sick.”

Today, only five of the 11 test subjects are still alive. Three of them attended the Gallaudet exhibit opening, happy to have another reunion and grateful to get this recognition all these years later.

“It's about time,” Larson said. “It's about time that something has happened for us.”

The exhibit Deaf Difference + Space Survival features more than 150 photographs, historic footage, documents, scientific reports, personal letters and filmed interviews.

The exhibit is free and open to the public, located inside Gallaudet University’s I. King Jordan Student Academic Center.

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