FEW SHORT MONTHS AGO , news programs around the globe showed NASA engineers and scientists celebrating as a robot named Perseverance successfully landed on the surface of Mars. The mission: capture and share images and audio that have never been seen or heard before. As impressed as most observers were of this major milestone, many couldn’t help but wonder when we might be ready to someday send humans. While it seems the stuff of science fiction and almost inconceivable, the answer— according to recent NASA planning —is before the end of the 2030s, less than two decades away. There are still many obstacles to accomplishing such a feat, many of which have to do with overcoming cognitive and mental health challenges that would impact a crew: long-term isolation, eyesight impairment, and psychological effects from the stress of danger and what could amount to life-or-death decisions. For a mission to succeed, high mental and cognitive function would be absolutely critical; astronauts would be called on to perform demanding tasks in a demanding
Name something stressful in your day-to-day routine, and it is likely also present in spaceflight—along with stressors that are unique to the context. Failure is Not an Option , the title of NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz’s memoir in 2000, convincingly sums up the situation. High workload is a common feature of spaceflight. Space programs (national or commercial) do not incur the expense of sending people into space for them to rest and relax. On the contrary, astronauts’ daily schedules (at least in the US program) are planned in great detail, and their progress in keeping on schedule is tracked in real time. And there is much to be done during a mission, from normal spacecraft operations, maintenance, and repairs, to a wide range of science experiments and assessments of new space technology. Much of the science, in fact, is dedicated to understanding the human response and adaptation to spaceflight. Along with the high workload, sleep disruptions and misalignment of circadian rhythms are not uncommon. The
normal light-dark cycle, which ordinarily provides a temporal structure to the day and entrains biological rhythms, is missing. Alarms of various kinds repeatedly awaken astronauts to conduct necessary tasks, and the pervasive sense of danger, lest something go wrong, can also be disruptive. All of these
FINDING THE ANSWERS TO OVERCOMING THOSE OBSTACLES HAS NOT ONLY OFFERED US THE OPPORTUNITY TO ADVANCE SPACEFLIGHT, IT ALSO ALLOWS US TO APPLY WHAT WE LEARN TO HELP PEOPLE HERE ON EARTH.
contribute to fatigue and stress. Such factors may not be unique to spaceflight, but the level of isolation and confinement astronauts experience is certainly unlikely to be found at home. As far as spacecraft go, the International Space Station (ISS) is large, but it is still small compared to the indoor and outdoor spaces we have access to here on Earth. There is no such thing as “going out for a walk,” without a great deal of preparation, special and cumbersome suits, and attendant increased risk. Add to this the fact that, while the view outside may be spectacular, astronauts aren’t tasked to look out the window but rather to work inside, where they see the same people and the same scenery day after day, month after month. The stress of interpersonal relations under such circumstances can be challenging. Then there are factors that are even more specific to space travel. The level of carbon dioxide in a spacecraft is typically much higher than here on Earth, because it is expensive in terms of supplies and energy to reduce it. Elevated CO 2 produces such effects as irritability and headache—not the
environment. Losing 20 IQ points halfway to Mars is not an option. Finding the answers to overcoming those obstacles has not only offered us the opportunity to advance spaceflight, it also allows us to apply what we learn to help people here on Earth. While we haven’t yet seen anything as a dramatic as a clear loss of intellectual capacity in space, there are enough indicators to suggest that we should pay close attention. Stress—an emotional or mental state resulting from tense or overwhelming circumstances—and the body’s response to it, which involves multiple systems, from metabolism to muscles to memory —may be the chief challenge that astronauts face. Spaceflight is full of stressors, many of which can have an impact on brain function, cognitive performance, and mental capacities. Several changes in brain structure and function have been observed [in astronauts after spaceflight]. The full implications of these changes for health and performance are not yet known, but any adverse consequences will be increasingly important as spaceflights become longer and more ambitious (such as a three-year mission to Mars).
14 DANA FOUNDATION CEREBRUM | Spr ing 2021
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