In space no one can hear you …

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Red arrows aircraft flying close to the ground.
Image by Bruno Albino from Pixabay 
Image by Bruno Albino from Pixabay 

Johanna Lucht could do maths before she learned language. Why? Because she was born deaf and there was little support for deaf people where she lived. Despite, or perhaps because of, that she became a computer scientist and works for NASA. 

Being deaf can be very, very disabling if you don’t get the right help. As a child, Johanna had no one to help her to communicate apart from her mother. She tried to teach Johanna sign language from a book. Throughout most of her primary school years she couldn’t have any real conversations with anyone, never mind learn. She got the lifeline she needed, when the school finally took on an interpreter, Keith Wann, to help her. She quickly learned American Sign Language working with him. Learning your first language is crucial to learning other things and suddenly she was able to learn in school like other children. She caught up remarkably quickly, showing that an intelligent girl had been locked in that silent, shy child. More than anything though, from Keith, she learned never to give up. 

Her early ability in maths, now her favourite subject, came to the fore as she excelled at science and technology. By this point her family had moved from Germany where she grew up to Alaska where there was much more support, an active deaf community for her to join and lots more opportunities that she started to take. She signed up for a special summer school on computing specifically for deaf people at the University of Washington, learning the programming skills that became the foundation for her future career at NASA. At only 17 she even returned to help teach the course. From there, she signed up to do Computer Science at university and applied for an internship at NASA. To her shock and delight she was given a place. 

Hitting the ground running 

A big problem for pilots especially of fighter aircraft is that of “controlled flight into terrain”: a technical sounding phrase that just means flying the plane into the ground for no good reason other than how difficult flying a fighter aircraft as low as possible in hazardous terrain is. The solution is a ground collision avoidance system: basically the pilots need a computer to warn them when hazardous terrain is coming up and when they are too close for comfort, and so should take evasive action. Johanna helped work on the interface design, so the part that pilots see and interact with. To be of any use in such high-pressure situations this communication has to be slick and very clear. 

She impressed those she was working with so much that she was offered a full time job and so became an engineer at NASA Armstrong working with a team designing, testing and integrating new research technology into experimental aircraft. She had to run tests with other technicians, the first problem being how to communicate effectively with the rest of the team. She succeeded twice as fast as her bosses expected, taking only a couple of days before the team were all working well together. Her experience from the challenges she had faced as a child were now providing her with the skills to do brilliantly in a job where teamwork and communication skills are vital. 

Mission control 

Eventually, she gained a place in Mission Control. There, slick comms are vital too. The engineers have to monitor the flight including all the communication as it happens, and be able to react to any developing situation. Johanna worked with an interpreter who listened directly to all the flight communications, signing it all for her to see on a second monitor. Working with interpreters in a situation like this is in itself a difficult task and Johanna had to make sure not only that they could communicate effectively but that the interpreter knew all the technical language that might come up in the flight. Johanna had plenty of experience dealing with issues like that though, and they worked together well, with the result that in April 2017 Johanna became the first deaf person to work in NASA mission control on a live mission … where of course she did not just survive the job, she excelled. 

As Johanna has pointed out it is not deafness itself that disables people, but the world deaf people live in that does. When in a world that wasn’t set up for deaf people, she struggled, but as soon as she started to get the basic help she needed that all changed. Change the environment to one that does not put up obstacles and deaf people can excel like anyone else. In space no one can hear anyone scream or for that matter speak. We don’t let it stop our space missions though. We just invent appropriate technology and make the problems go away. 

More on …

Read more about Johanna Lucht:

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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1. 

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