How do you regain control of a spacecraft tumbling through space? The Mercury astronauts trained by spinning in this gimbal rig in an effort to mimic the disorienting chaos they’d need to battle during the earliest human spaceflight missions.

All Mercury astronauts trained on this multi-axis space test intertia device, nicknamed the gimbal rig, to acclimatize them to the crazy ride they could anticipate in their missions. NASA also used the rig to understand physiological impact of rapidly spinning astronauts.

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Watch the rig in action here:

When in use, this was Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility (MASTIF) was located within the Altitude Wind Tunnel at the Lewis Research Center. Since then, the facility has been renamed to the the John H. Glenn Research Center.

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The rig was composed of a trio of independently-moving aluminum cages with the pilot strapped to a plastic chair at its center. The rig reach up to 30 revolutions per minute, a more dramatic test of endurance than the astronauts could anticipate from their actual spacecraft.

Mercury 13’s Jerrie Cobb taking a turn in the rig. Image credit: NASA

An external operator at a control station initiated the complex tumble, then handed control off to the pilot strapped at the center of the mess. The pilot had their head, body, and legs strapped in place, with only arms free to manipulate the controls (right-hand column) and communications rig (left-hand column). The pilot used instrument readouts bolted at eye-level to determine how to fire nitrogen-gas jets to stabilize the roll, pitch, and yaw.

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The pilot and operator of the gimbal rig could only communicate via radio. Image credit: NASA

The seven original Project Mercury astronauts trained in the rig between February 15 and March 4, 1960, each wracking up five hours of eye-oscillating, motion sickness inducing simulated flight time. The thirteen women of Mercury 13 also trained on the rig later the same year.

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Time lapse of the gimbal rig in action on December 16, 1959. Image credit: NASA


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.

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