Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) – Astronauts have been venturing into space for 61 years to unleash human potential for exploration.
But the floating freedom offered by the lack of attractiveness also introduces a number of limitations when it comes to the human body and mind.
Short trips to space have transformed from the early Mercury and Apollo missions to stays of six months or more on the International Space Station. The floating lab has been the perfect backdrop for scientists trying to understand what really happens to every aspect of the human body in the space environment – radiation, zero gravity, everything.
Many of these effects have been well documented over time, particularly during the 2019 Twins Study that compared the changes Scott Kelly experienced after nearly a year in space with those of his twin brother, Mark, who remains on Earth.
Christopher Mason of Weill Cornell Medicine partnered with NASA on this research, and he and Scott Kelly spoke about the findings at the Life Itself 2022 conference, a health and wellness event presented in partnership with CNN.
“What did you miss the most about Earth when you were away for a year?” asked Mason Kelly.
“The weather, of course. Rain, sun, wind,” Kelly said. “And then I miss the people… that are important to you, you know, and to your family and friends.”
As NASA plans to return humans to the Moon and eventually land on Mars through the Artemis program, there is growing interest in understanding the effects that can occur from long-term travel through deep space.
The big question that some scientists have asked is whether humans are mentally and emotionally prepared for such a big leap. In short: how will we deal with it?
In a 2021 study, participants live nearly two months in a simulation of weightlessness by resting in a special bed with their heads tilted down at a 6-degree angle. The tilt creates a vertical shift of the body fluids that astronauts experience in zero gravity.
Participants were regularly asked to complete cognitive tests designed for astronauts, relating to memory, risk taking, emotion recognition, and spatial orientation.
The researchers wanted to test whether trying artificial gravity for 30 minutes a day, either all at once or in five-minute bouts, could prevent negative effects. While study participants experienced an initial cognitive decline on their tests, it stabilized and did not last for 60 days.
But the speed with which they learned about feelings generally worsened. During the tests, they were more likely to see facial expressions as angry, rather than happy or neutral.
said study author Matthias Basner, MD, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
“The astronauts’ ability to correctly ‘read’ each other’s emotional expressions will be of paramount importance for effective teamwork and mission success. Our findings suggest that their ability to do so may be affected over time.”
In the study, it was not clear whether this weakness was due to the simulated hypogravity or the confinement and isolation that the participants experienced for 60 days.
A separate 2021 study, published in Acta Astronautica, developed a mental health checklist based on the stressors faced by astronauts — also shared by those who spend months at research stations in Antarctica.
These two extreme environments—space and the edge of the world—create a lack of privacy, altered cycles of light and darkness, confinement, isolation, monotony, and prolonged separation from family and friends.
University of Houston psychology professor Candice Alfano and her team designed the checklist as a self-reporting way to track these mental health changes. The biggest change people reported in the two Antarctic stations was a decrease in positive feelings from the beginning to the end of the nine-month stay with no “rebound” effect even as they prepared to return home.
Participants also used less effective strategies for promoting positive emotions.
“Interventions and countermeasures aimed at promoting positive emotions may be critical in reducing psychological risks in extreme circumstances,” Alfano said.
Protecting explorers away from home
Helping astronauts stay mentally sharp and healthy as they venture away from home is a major goal of NASA’s Human Research Program. In the past, the program has developed countermeasures to help astronauts combat muscle and bone loss, such as daily exercises on the space station.
Researchers are actively studying the idea of how purposeful work can bring mission crews together. When astronauts work as a team, whether on the space station or in a simulation of the Martian environment on Earth, their collaboration is toward a common goal.
And when they’re done with work, they can spend time together watching movies or enjoying recreational activities to combat feelings of isolation.
However, a mission to Mars, which could take months or years depending on the design of the spacecraft, can lead to a sense of monotony and confinement. And the frequent contact with Mission Control and loved ones on Earth will become more turbulent the further away from Earth.
“We need to make sure we have some sort of individual protocol and things that the crew has to do,” Alexandra Whitmer, an element scientist with the Human Research Program, said during an interview with CNN in 2021. “It’s really important for us to understand those individuals who are going to be on this mission.”
While some crew members may bring excitement and fulfillment from working on science experiments, others may need to tinker with other tasks. Previous research has already identified key traits that may be necessary in a deep space explorer, such as self-reliance and problem-solving.
One of the amazing discoveries on the space station is how food – and the cultivation of crops – lift the morale of the crew while maintaining a very important tangible connection to home.
It’s no surprise that space food should be a safe, stable source of nutrition and still taste good. But actively growing vegetables has been a rewarding and delicious experience for previous crews on the space station.
The astronauts reported how faithful it was to care for leafy green plants, radishes and chile peppers hatching and watching the plants bloom, eventually producing an edible reward.
HRP scientists wondered if this sense of complacency could be taken a step further. When astronauts like Scott Kelly or Christina Koch returned to Earth after long spaceflights, they talked about not being able to wait to feel the rain or the ocean waves again.
Guided imagery and virtual reality capabilities may be a necessary part of future deep space flights to remind astronauts of their sensory connection to the “blue marble,” even as it shrinks from view.
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