Optical Connections: Spectacles in space

David Baker tells the tale of how a pair of Varilux lenses came to be used on the Mir space station

So you have just fitted your patient with their first pair of varifocals. You have explained and demonstrated how to use them and no doubt given reassurance that they are welcome to pop back any time should they have any problems. But that is a bit difficult when your patient is soon to be 250 miles away, vertically, orbiting the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. This was the challenge that faced Marc Alexandre of Essilor and his team in 1994.

Alexandre had harboured the idea of putting Varilux lenses into space as a public relations coup for some time. With the help of Essilor’s US representative, Rod Tahran, and the cooperation of RL Hopping, the optometrist attached to Nasa, he was able to visit Houston in 1985 to fit astronauts with Varilux. The big break came a year later when Alexandre and his team were authorised to supply Varilux lenses to the three presbyopic astronauts among the crew of seven designated for the space shuttle mission due to launch in January 1986: the commander, Francis Scobee; pilot, Michael Smith; and engineer, Gregory B Jarvis.

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