Step inside 'The Chamber'

April 17, 2009 10:57:41 AM PDT
You might recall that Golfer Payne Stewart died in the crash of a runaway jet 10 years ago. The jet flew on autopilot thousands of miles off course and crashed when it ran out of fuel. All six people on board had already died of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. Hypoxia is something NASA takes very seriously. In an intimidating room known as "the chamber," NASA trainers gave us oxygen, and then took it away. It was a test to see if we could recognize the changes in our brains and bodies caused by a lack of oxygen.

People talked about the chamber with respect. It is required training for anyone going up on NASA's zero gravity plane.

Before they let you fly in zero gravity, you first have to prove in an altitude chamber that you're not going to pass out because of a lack of oxygen.

Each of us was fitted with an oxygen mask because in the high altitude chamber, NASA turns down the oxygen.

"They need to know what they're symptoms are if they have low oxygen or hypoxia," said NASA Flight Surgeon Dr. Sam Strauss.

If an airplane loses pressure at 25,000 feet, the reduced oxygen impairs your judgment and you may not realize you need oxygen until it is too late. NASA teaches fliers how it feels to lose oxygen, in a safe setting.

At first it was not bad, but then it became a struggle to breathe.

"You're at two minutes. I want everyone to write down hypoxia symptoms," said Dr. Strauss.

The symptoms varied.

"I noticed things got a little blurry, and slowed down," said Kara Beaton, a research student.

"Some people start to laugh, some people get very serious, other people may get a headache. Or they may have blurring of vision," said Dr. Strauss.

A big grin is a red flag. So is euphoria.

"People get to the point they're so far gone and aren't aware that they can't help themselves," said Dr. Strauss.

After four minutes, everyone was told to put their oxygen masks back on.

"My head became heavy and my extremities became cold and then it was over. It was like I didn't remember it even happening," said research student Justin Barba.

The training was to test a sensor belt in weightlessness. The belt is used to prevent disorientation in space and on earth, it has the potential to help people with brain injuries, balance problems, and even Parkinson's.

Here was something else we learned -- some brands of lip balm and makeup are combustible. So it's a good idea to wash your face before putting on the oxygen mask.

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Christi Myers is ABC13's Healthcheck reporter

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