Hearing Lost in Space? Research Probes Factors That May Affect Astronauts’ Hearing The weightless qualities of space offer advantages to science, as demonstrated in the number of experiments done on the U.S. Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). It has its downside though, as reflected in bone loss experienced by long-term space travelers. Some astronauts also have reported hearing impairments. ... Features
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Features  |   April 01, 2005
Hearing Lost in Space? Research Probes Factors That May Affect Astronauts’ Hearing
Author Notes
  • Dee Naquin Shafer, an assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at dshafer@asha.org.
    Dee Naquin Shafer, an assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at dshafer@asha.org.×
Article Information
Hearing & Speech Perception / Research Issues, Methods & Evidence-Based Practice / Features
Features   |   April 01, 2005
Hearing Lost in Space? Research Probes Factors That May Affect Astronauts’ Hearing
The ASHA Leader, April 2005, Vol. 10, 5-13. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.10052005.5
The ASHA Leader, April 2005, Vol. 10, 5-13. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.10052005.5
The weightless qualities of space offer advantages to science, as demonstrated in the number of experiments done on the U.S. Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). It has its downside though, as reflected in bone loss experienced by long-term space travelers.
Some astronauts also have reported hearing impairments. In March, NASA gave the go-ahead for research on the possibility of developing a system to test hearing for astronauts on the ISS.
The lead investigators are Jay Buckey, an associate professor of medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and Robert Kline-Schoder from Creare, Inc. (both in Hanover, NH). Buckey has a personal connection to space research. He served as an astronaut on the Neurolab STS-90 mission which flew for 16 days in 1998 on the Space Shuttle Columbia. He is an expert in space physiology and medicine, and especially in the challenges of extended space travel.
The hearing testing system will be designed to run on a computer aboard the ISS, Buckey said. Threshold-based hearing tests are challenging because that type of test requires a quiet area.
“There may be some spots [on the ISS] that are quiet enough if we provide custom molded earpieces. In case we can’t, otoacoustic emissions (OAEs) testing is the other key component. We’re trying to develop some repeatable and accurate ways to measure hearing,” he said.
OAE testing is not threshold-based and can be self-administered. “It’s quick, objective, and relatively noise-tolerant,” he said. The space station is fairly noisy, although decibels do not approach the levels that are normally associated with hearing loss. Thus, the question arises of whether weightlessness somehow amplifies the effects of noise.
An example of how it sounds is inside an airplane during flight. “It’s continuous and it’s noisier than you’re used to. But it’s not [as loud as on] a factory floor. The dBs are 60, maybe up into the 70s,” Buckey said.
Not all astronauts experience hearing loss. The Russian space program has reported many incidents, with some permanent hearing shifts, he said. American astronauts have reported temporary threshold shifts.
It is hard to know what the variables are. Some astronauts may use a lot of hearing protection, but this makes communication difficult-a particular problem when teammates are working together on a project. “Protection is not really a panacea-you’re paying a price for that,” Buckey said.
Buckey and Kline-Schoder first proposed the research to NASA in 1999 and started doing work on it in 2000. Buckey said they are encouraged at finally receiving the approval.
The estimated timeline is about a year. Buckey will be consulting with Frank Musiek, an audiologist in the Department of Communication Sciences at the University of Connecticut (Storrs), and with Brenda Lonsbury-Martin, chief staff officer for Research and Science at ASHA.
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April 2005
Volume 10, Issue 5