A National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) study is tackling the issue of spatial disorientation, which is responsible for up to 10 percent of general aviation accidents in the United States and is a major concern for astronaut pilots. The project involves specially designed software that monitors the flight of the vehicle - speed, heading, pitch and altitude - and the actions of the pilot. The system will use audio and visual cues to alert pilots of problems before things get out of hand. The group is also looking at the option of testing a vest with pager-like vibrators distributed to alert the pilot when an orientation correction is needed.
According to Project Leader Ron Small, the root cause leading to spatial disorientation, which tends to occur in poor visibility conditions, is physiology. "Humans are notoriously bad at figuring out their orientation when flying because we did not evolve in a flight environment, in contrast with birds," said Small, a member of NSBRI's Sensorimotor Adaptation Team. "It is worse in a spacecraft because the vehicle can move side to side, up and down, and rotate in all directions.
The group has tested the software's ability to detect spatial disorientation incidents. They are now working to better understand the differences in craft movement in the atmosphere and in space and how the human inner ear functions in both environments. The researchers are putting emphasis on lunar landings due to the challenges of reduced gravity and the unfamiliar, dusty terrain.