Patricia Cowings: The Black Woman Helping Astronauts Fight Space Sickness

NASA psychophysiologist, Dr Patricia Cowings, was the first American woman to be trained as a scientist-astronaut. She designed a program that helps astronauts combat space sickness. Also, Cowings helps astronauts better adapt to space by studying the effects of gravity on human physiology and performance.

In 1979, she was an alternate for a space flight. Cowings never made it to space, but she has spent her 34-year career at NASA, impacting lives that have come across her. She taught them to regulate many autonomic functions such as heart rate through biofeedback.

Cowings investigated psycho-physiological problems faced in space in the early 1980s. Realizing that space-sickness is a real problem for many astronauts, Cowings tested induced sickness so she could learn how to combat the effects.

Her research resulted in the NASA patented Autogenic Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE). The AFTE method and system is used to train people to monitor and voluntarily control a variety of their physiological responses to reduce symptoms of motion sickness and environmental stress.

She came up with a program that would take astronauts no longer than six hours to learn to control the sickness. Cowings designed a program of 12 half-hour sessions combing training with bio-feedback.

Cowings’ brand of biofeedback involves having to control over 20 physiological functions related to motion sickness. These include such things as heart rate, rate of respiration and the flow of blood to the hands. Subjects learn to regulate these autonomic functions by watching them as they are displayed on an oscilloscope.

Born and raised in The Bronx, New York City on December 15, 1948, and the only daughter of Sadie B. and Albert S. Cowings, Dr. Cowings earned her psychology doctorate from the University of California, in 1973. She started working at NASA in 1971 when she was a graduate student. She received a fellowship in NASA’s Graduate Research Science Program.

She is the principal investigator of Psychophysiological Research Laboratories at NASA Ames Research Center. She has also served as principal investigator for a number of studies, mostly involving the autogenic-feedback training exercise (AFTE), a treatment for space motion sickness she developed and patented.

“Touching astronauts,” she said is the best part of her job. “Astronauts are intelligent, usually holding multiple advanced degrees, and they are physically fit. I get to see what they are like and help them” better adapt to space, she said in an interview.

For her incredible and inspiring work, Cowings has received many awards including the NASA Individual Achievement Award, the Black Engineer of the Year Award, the AMES Honor Award for Technology Development, the NASA Space Act Award for Invention and the National Women of Color Technology Award.

Dr. Cowings has held several adjunct professorships at many universities, and her work is on permanent display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Washington. In 2009 she was inducted into the women in technology Hall of Fame.

For those hoping to get her kind of job, Cowings said: “If you’re financially able, work for free to get yourself in the door. Many students volunteer at NASA to gain the experience, not to mention a good letter of recommendation.”

She recalled that when she was in graduate school, she wrote a letter to psychologist Neal Miller, a pioneer of biofeedback research who discovered that people could be trained to alter bodily processes. In her letter, she explained to him that he was her hero and she would love to work for him, even for free. She worked with him for one year on his biofeedback research, and they eventually worked together as co-investigators on AFTE research.

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