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The Role of Visual Cues in Microgravity Spatial OrientationIn weightlessness, astronauts must rely on vision to remain spatially oriented. Although gravitational down cues are missing, most astronauts maintain a subjective vertical -a subjective sense of which way is up. This is evidenced by anecdotal reports of crewmembers feeling upside down (inversion illusions) or feeling that a floor has become a ceiling and vice versa (visual reorientation illusions). Instability in the subjective vertical direction can trigger disorientation and space motion sickness. On Neurolab, a virtual environment display system was used to conduct five interrelated experiments, which quantified: (a) how the direction of each person's subjective vertical depends on the orientation of the surrounding visual environment, (b) whether rolling the virtual visual environment produces stronger illusions of circular self-motion (circular vection) and more visual reorientation illusions than on Earth, (c) whether a virtual scene moving past the subject produces a stronger linear self-motion illusion (linear vection), and (d) whether deliberate manipulation of the subjective vertical changes a crewmember's interpretation of shading or the ability to recognize objects. None of the crew's subjective vertical indications became more independent of environmental cues in weightlessness. Three who were either strongly dependent on or independent of stationary visual cues in preflight tests remained so inflight. One other became more visually dependent inflight, but recovered postflight. Susceptibility to illusions of circular self-motion increased in flight. The time to the onset of linear self-motion illusions decreased and the illusion magnitude significantly increased for most subjects while free floating in weightlessness. These decreased toward one-G levels when the subject 'stood up' in weightlessness by wearing constant force springs. For several subjects, changing the relative direction of the subjective vertical in weightlessness-either by body rotation or by simply cognitively initiating a visual reorientation-altered the illusion of convexity produced when viewing a flat, shaded disc. It changed at least one person's ability to recognize previously presented two-dimensional shapes. Overall, results show that most astronauts become more dependent on dynamic visual motion cues and some become responsive to stationary orientation cues. The direction of the subjective vertical is labile in the absence of gravity. This can interfere with the ability to properly interpret shading, or to recognize complex objects in different orientations.
Document ID
Document Type
Oman, Charles M. (Massachusetts Inst. of Tech. Cambridge, MA, United States)
Howard, Ian P. (York Univ. Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Smith, Theodore (Massachusetts Inst. of Tech. Cambridge, MA, United States)
Beall, Andrew C. (Massachusetts Inst. of Tech. Cambridge, MA, United States)
Natapoff, Alan (Massachusetts Inst. of Tech. Cambridge, MA, United States)
Zacher, James E. (York Univ. Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Jenkin, Heather L. (York Univ. Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Date Acquired
September 7, 2013
Publication Date
January 1, 2003
Publication Information
Publication: The Neurolab Spacelab Mission: Neuroscience Research in Space: Results from the STS-90, Neurolab Spacelab Mission
Subject Category
Aerospace Medicine
Funding Number(s)
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.

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IDRelationTitle20030068190Analytic PrimaryThe Neurolab Spacelab Mission: Neuroscience Research in Space: Results from the STS-90, Neurolab Spacelab Mission