Imagine walking down a sidewalk and you look ahead to see the horizon span from left to right. With the help of multiple senses and gravity, your body plants firmly on the pavement, causing you not to waver. But what if, all of a sudden, you don't know which way is up or down? Your senses aren't in agreement anymore, and you are unable to maintain balance.
Such is the case for some pilots and astronauts during flight. It's called spatial disorientation.
"In flight, it's common to experience accelerations in various directions, and this has the potential to fool pilots into believing the ground is in a different direction than what it really is," said NASA Langley aerospace research engineer Kyle Ellis.
To prevent this, pilots use a spatial disorientation trainer called the Bárány Chair, which is named after Hungarian psychologist Bárány Róbert. "The chair allows pilots to safely simulate disorientation by accelerating the vestibular system -- the inner ear -- in a direction that's not in the 'down' direction typically sensed on the ground," Ellis added.
Over the last several months, 16 students from Kecoughtan High School (KHS) and New Horizons Regional Education Center (NH) in Hampton, Va., helped to design, build, assemble and test a Bárány Chair.
The students were part of NASA Langley's High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware or (HUNCH) program, in which they learn to work in teams and think creatively as they fabricate real-world products for NASA using their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.
Initiated from NASA Langley's Office of Human Capital Management and Office of Education, the HUNCH Program is a unique collaborative partnership with Langley's Engineering Directorate.
"I'm so excited about the possibilities a program like HUNCH creates for not only the career and technical education students, but also the ability for all students to see engineering designs come to life in real world applications that benefit NASA," said Monica Barnes, Education Partnership Development Manager.
Langley began its HUNCH program in November of last year, making it the third NASA center to adopt the 10-year-old program, along with Johnson Space Center (JSC) and Marshall Space Flight Center.
In order to develop the Bárány Chair, KHS students were given the preliminary sketches, provided by JSC and Langley, and used a Computer Aided Design (CAD) system to design the chair with the help of Langley engineers. NH students then spent a mentored internship at Langley learning about fabrication -- eventually leading them to weld, assemble and test the chair.
Langley HUNCH students had the chance to test out their self-built chair by sitting in it, closing their eyes and laying their head sideways on the bar in front of them. Their peer then spun the chair in slow, steady rotations. The sitting student was then brought to a sudden halt and asked to open their eyes and lift their hands toward the ceiling -- or what they thought was the ceiling.
Instead of reaching toward the ceiling, their hands veered off in different directions due to their confused sense of gravity. Students learned that their disorientation, dizziness and nausea meant that they built the chair flawlessly.
"It feels like a roller coaster," said New Horizon student Brandon Hogan. "Now that it's all done and you can sit in it, you're like, 'Wow, it's done. We built that.' It's a good feeling."
In mid-June, The Bárány Chair will be shipped to JSC's Human Test and Space Medicine Division where it will be used to teach the effects of spatial disorientation and what happens when pilots and astronauts are subjected to multi-directional accelerations during flight.
Langley's first HUNCH project is just the beginning.
Students who participate in the Langley HUNCH program may have the opportunity to run the HUNCH website -- currently led out of JSC -- and possibly build a mockup of the International Space Station's Destiny Laboratory.
Before moving on to the next thing, though, the center acknowledged those involved at a HUNCH Recognition Ceremony at the National Institute for Aerospace in Hampton. Students, instructors and Langley mentors were recognized for their participation in the design and fabrication of the Bárány Chair. The honorees were presented with a HUNCH certificate, lapel pin and T-shirt. Mr. Stacy Hale, HUNCH Program Manager from JSC, Langley management, and the superintendents and boards of trustees from the six participating school districts were there to congratulate the team.
Langley HUNCH leads Tammy Cottee and Timothy Wood expressed their excitement about -- not only what the students had accomplished -- but also what the future holds for them.
"This is a rare opportunity to be able to learn from Langley experts who have a lot of experience in welding and brazing," said Timothy Wood, HUNCH lead. "In addition to getting training that’s specific to their field, they also had exposure to many different potential opportunities."
NASA Langley Research Center