In the earliest days of manned spaceflight, both astronauts and cosmonauts were strapped in, seated in form-fitting seats and cumbersome pressure suits with very little room to move beyond removing a zipper to pee and poop or take off the suit.

Scientists were obviously worried about the effects of weightlessness on human physiology in space. After subjecting Jim Lovell and Frank Borman to eternal singalongs for 13 days on Gemini 7, most of the scientists were confident that there were significant issues with general exposure to weightlessness.

By 1968, in the age of Apollo, those confidences were disturbed. Apollo 7 suffered from hectic mission plans and what seemed to be a shared head cold between them all. In reality, they were also suffering from a milder form of space sickness. What colds in combination to the extra motion must’ve felt terrible in an environment where sinuses were naturally stuffy because of how fluids redistribute throughout the body. It’s snot funny.

With Apollo 8, Frank Borman suffered a bout of space sickness so terrible en route to the moon that there were concerns that the mission would be shortened and orbital insertion scrubbed.

Apollo 9 wasn’t much better. Rusty Schweickart was scheduled to make a spacewalk before he became ill. He couldn’t wear a suit if vomiting happened, or he might aspirate what floated, causing pneumonia-like illness at least, choking at worst. While his illness cleared up enough to make the spacewalk, some objectives, such as moving from the LM to the CM from the outside on handrails to test procedures in case the tunnel was blocked, the ships couldn’t dock or the CMP died, were scrubbed.

NASA began to study the problem, and astronauts, well, didn’t talk too much about it. They remembered Rusty from Apollo 9 disappearing from the flight rotation and feared that any mention of it in flight would leave them grounded as well.

By the time we got to Skylab, every crew suffered a bit in the station’s roomy interior, even to long-term space veterans Pete Conrad and Alan Bean. The station’s last crew hid a space sickness incident to avoid scandal or stigma.

Knowing that future adventures in the roomy Space Shuttle were not likely to stop astronauts getting sick anytime soon, more attention was put to space sickness and a formal name for it was penned: space adaptation syndrome.

Thankfully, your body does eventually adapt to the perceived twisting and turning that causes the nausea and churning after a few hours to a few days.

There are anti-nausea drugs an astronaut can take and probably should before flight. Others developed optical aids that fool or condition the brain for the odd motions, although these were experimental.

But, like on earth, there may be some practical aids to motion sickness on earth that are applicable to space travelers, such as looking out the window to sync what you see to what you feel, and not moving your head around too much.

Space sickness gained a new standard on the STS-51-D mission, launched on April 12, 1985. One member of the crew wasn’t an astronaut by trade, but a United States politician: Senator Jake Garn.

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Garn during weightlessness training, where apparently he did not get sick. (NASA)

On this flight, this humorous former Navy veteran combat pilot got sick. But not the usual sick. We’re talking so sick that…well, let’s quote NASA physician Dr. Robert Stevenson:

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, and so the mark of being totally sick and totally incompetent is one Garn. Most guys will get maybe to a tenth Garn, if that high. And within the Astronaut Corps, he forever will be remembered by that… The young kids don’t know… the origin of a “Garn.”

And, lo, the “Garn Scale” was born.

As for Garn himself, he was amused and honored to have his name used as a standard. (It probably didn’t hurt that NASA’s primary astronaut training facility was also named after him.)

Enjoy an interview with the former senator about his adventure.

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