Your brain works in space. But when President Kennedy said we’d go to the Moon, we didn’t know that

By Charles Fishman

This is the first in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day. 

Would the human brain work in weightlessness?

That is, would astronauts sent into space be able to think–be able to do useful work?

Fifty-eight years into the era of human spaceflight, it seems like an antiquated question, almost silly. But at the dawn of the Space Age, we knew so little about everything that thinking in zero gravity was a serious concern–with good reason. If people couldn’t think in space, spaceflight would be a lot more challenging than it already was.

Indeed, when President John F. Kennedy made his legendary speech committing the United States to send astronauts to the Moon by the end of the ’60s, it was May 25, 1961. Space travel had barely been tried. The U.S. had exactly 15 minutes of spaceflight experience with one astronaut in one space capsule–and only 5 minutes of flying in zero gravity.

NASA had no rockets to launch astronauts to the Moon, no computer portable enough to guide a spaceship to the Moon, no spaceship to land astronauts on the Moon, no space food to eat on the way, and no spacesuits to wear once they arrived, let alone a Moon car to allow them to drive around and explore once they got there.

“When [Kennedy] asked us to do that in 1961,” said Chris Kraft, the NASA engineer who went on to create Mission Control in Houston, “it was impossible.”

Physicians, psychologists, and NASA scientists argued about whether human beings would be able to think in space, because they didn’t know what the impact of weightlessness would be on the brain.

That first brief U.S. spaceflight–Alan Shepard’s single arc, like a pop fly just up to the edge of space and back–happened 20 days before Kennedy’s speech, and although Shepard was only in flight for 15 minutes, he was “heavily task-loaded during most of the flight,” as NASA’s official post-mission assessment put it. “That was particularly true during the weightless period.”

Mission planners wanted Shepard to work his brain as hard as possible to see if it worked right. The same thing was done on subsequent Mercury flights. NASA’s reports from the time refer to the question of whether astronauts could think in flight in the somewhat bloodless language of pilot and astronaut training, as a question of “performance.”

“During a short ballistic flight,” said the account of that inaugural human mission, “Astronaut Shepard was able to operate a complex vehicle with no significant reduction in performance while exposed to unusual environmental conditions, such as a five-minute period of weightlessness.”

In his own post-mission report, Shepard wrote that “there was a lack of anything upsetting during a weightless or zero-g environment” and although NASA worried about zero gravity, “the astronauts approach these periods with no trepidation.”

During later flights, NASA did things like attach an eye chart to the instrument panel, to make sure astronaut vision wasn’t affected by weightlessness. A 43-page report assessing the overall physical and psychological impact of weightlessness on those first six short Mercury missions reported that “no disturbances in well-being or abnormalities of sensation, thought, or intellectual functions were noted.”

Not only could the astronauts think in zero gravity–and see, smell, hear, and talk–they liked it. The fourth U.S. astronaut in space, Scott Carpenter, told his NASA debriefers that weightlessness was “a blessing, nothing more, nothing less.”

Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the last four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, a book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can pre-order it here.)

For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman–one you’ve likely never heard before–about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).


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