“there was immediate pain, but there was also blurred vision”
Norman E Thagard feared for his sight when a freak accident affected one of his eyes on board the Russian space station Mir
Research astronaut Norman E Thagard was performing deep knee-bend exercises when an elastic foot strap slipped away and ended up slapping him in his right eye, causing him great pain whenever he saw light.
What mission were they on?
Thagard was on the Soyuz TM-21 mission which launched on 14 March 1995. “I was a crew member for the Russian Mir EO-18 mission and I had gone to the space station aboard Soyuz with commander Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strekalov. It was my fifth spaceflight in a space career that began in January 1978 when I was selected as an astronaut candidate. I had first flown with the crew of STS-7 which launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 18 June 1983. My mission in 1995 was to be my last.
“I am writing a book about my Mir experiences which will be based on the diary I kept while on board, but without referring to that, I recall there being ‘expanderee‘ on board the space station.
This is a Russian term for stretchable cables that required strength to expand. They are sometimes seen in gyms for repetitive stretching exercises to build or maintain muscle strength and one such piece of gym equipment was long enough to stretch from one foot up to and around the back of the neck, over the shoulders and down to the other foot, with each foot inserted into a stirrup.
“I used this cable to perform repetitive deep knee bends which is essentially a full squat strengthtraining exercise that can burn fat and increase flexibility. While engaged in this activity during one of my scheduled exercise periods, the stirrup slipped off one of my feet and, because I was almost ‘standing’ (remember I was working in a zero-g environment), the cable was on the stretch. This meant that it was under a considerable amount of tension.
“Due to this tension, when the stirrup slipped off my foot, it flew off at high speed. Within a split second it had struck me in the right eye. As you can imagine there was immediate pain, but there was also blurred vision in that eye. Later on, I noticed photophobia – a symptom of abnormal intolerance to visual perception of light that causes discomfort or pain due to light exposure. This happened even with low-intensity light.
“Since I am a physician, I tried to use a mirror to perform an eye examination on myself but I could not identify any sign of injury. The pain was intense so I used anaesthetic eye drops in the affected eye and then I patched it to avoid any further inadvertent injury to the desensitised eye. I told Strekalov what had happened and he joked, “Oh, yes. Those things are dangerous. That's why I don't use them.” “Thanks, Gennady, for the heads-up on that one,” I responded.
“I was able to get a consultation with a Russian ophthalmologist at Mission Control, Moscow and I followed his recommended action, but the eye did not seem to improve. After a day or two, the ophthalmologist decided the injury was likely a corneal abrasion and recommended new treatment. I applied steroid drops, which the space station had readily available, and the injury then seemed to quickly resolve and get back to normal.
“After the mission, however, one of the NASA eye doctors suggested that the injury may have accelerated the progress of the cataract in the lens of my right eye. I am not an ophthalmologist and I did not research the possibility that the injury could have affected the cataract, but it is true that the right lens required replacement more than three years before the left eye's lens.”
“The injury may have accelerated the cataract in my right eye” Norman thagard
Norman E Thagard performs a medical experiment during his first flight in
1983 – luckily his eyes were covered then!