“Six years ago, I drew a simple image on my office blackboard, one that showed my dream of reaching for the stars. I just knew this product was going to change lives, change the world — and space travel was my dream.” — Dr Dirk Koekemoer, eMoyo founder
On 20 February 2021, the Cygnus NG-15 spacecraft prepared for launch at NASA’s flight facility in Virginia. Its destination was the International Space Station and its mission was to resupply cargo to the orbital lab and its crew.
On board, there was one very unique and much anticipated piece of equipment: eMoyo’s very own Kuduwave portable audiometer. This medically certified device has been revolutionising the testing and diagnosis of auditory related deficiencies in South Africa since 2009.
But why was it headed into space?
The Challenges of Hearing in Space
“The International Space Station is a noisy place,” says NASA’s Dr Richard Danielson, the only audiologist working in aerospace. “You have, for instance, air handling systems and vacuums used to cool specimens.”
Working in high-noise environments is known to lead to changes in the ability to hear higher frequencies. But NASA’s audiology studies began to pick up an unusual trend in the astronauts’ hearing tests. Rather than being affected at high frequencies, their hearing was being affected at low frequencies.
At the time, sophisticated portable audiometers were not available, so NASA had to adapt a hearing device to conduct tests. However, it was unclear if the results were being affected by other variables such as background noise. They also couldn’t measure middle ear function, which can be affected by pressure changes.
And so the search to find the perfect product began.
How eMoyo Got Involved
After a NASA intern discovered eMoyo while doing online research, the two organisations began to brainstorm if the Kuduwave could help solve the issues currently being faced in the testing process. NASA had explored several other products from across the globe, but the criteria were strict and eMoyo’s Kuduwave was the most feasible contender.
The product needed to:
- Provide clinical data. The tests needed to be implemented as a medical requirement, not an experiment — much along the same lines as monitoring crew members’ blood pressure, food intake, blood tests and so on.
- Be web based. So that results could be relayed back to Earth.
- Have low mass and minimal additional hardware. Since the Kuduwave is similar in size to a large pair of headphones, is portable and doesn’t require a sound booth, it takes up minimal space and weight in the aircraft.
- Be simple to stow and use. Every minute of an astronaut’s daily schedule is accounted for, which means every task needs to be efficient. The Kuduwave can test the pressures of both ears simultaneously, which substantially reduces testing time. And it’s so simple to use that the astronauts can conduct the tests themselves.
- Be able to test middle ear function. The Kuduwave has a built-in tympanometer for this. In addition, the device can test hearing sensitivities by using bone conduction audiometry. This shows if the hearing change is due to inner ear problems or due to issues with sound conduction through the ear canal, drum or bones.
- Report on background noise levels. The Kuduwave was able to do this using a built-in Sound Level Meter.
What followed was a few years of testing new prototypes as the available commercial product needed to be adapted to suit space travel. And what emerged was an exceptional product that not only achieves all of the above but can also withstand anything from being tumble dried for 30 minutes to temperatures down to -70 degrees Celsius (-94°F).
“It took over three years to get the Kuduwave into space. There were many challenges but I give eMoyo credit that this device was modified for our needs and the modifications far exceeded the original requirement. They should be proud of what they have done for the Human Space Life Program,” says Dr Danielson.
When Will Kuduwave Testing in Space Be Completed?
Testing by two crews began in May 2021. SpaceX Crew-2, launched on 23 April, conducted On-Orbit Hearing Assessments (OOHA) two to three weeks into their mission and again around the halfway mark. These inflight tests will be done with both the Kuduwave and existing hardware to determine key differences. Around the same time, three Russian Expedition 64-Crew members were set to undergo inflight tests onboard the Soyuz spaceflight. Results are expected to only be released towards the end of 2021.
If NASA can fully understand the elements affecting hearing loss or changes in their crew members, it will enable them to build a better environment for astronauts.
“Beyond this, the product offers testing opportunities for ground staff and even the military, since a booth is not needed. So not only is it clinically reliable but also a convenient method for conducting hearing tests closer to working sites,” concludes Dr Danielson.
“This is a truly South African story. The will, the grit and the determination to create a product that will change the lives of so many people and we at eMoyo are so proud to be a part of that change.” — Jillian Scotland, COO of eMoyo
Learn more about eMoyo’s Kuduwave range of portable audiometers.