Next in NASA’s path to Mars: Overcoming astronauts’ cognitive and mental health challenges

– Illustration by Zoë Van Dijk

Space Between the Ears (Cerebrum):

A 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 environment. Losing 20 IQ points halfway to Mars is not an option … 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). Keep reading excellent article HERE

NASA’s “path to Mars” planning:

Astronauts Will Face Many Hazards on a Journey to Mars (Space.com):

NASA isn’t planning to go straight to Mars. The agency aims to land two astronauts near the lunar south pole by 2024, then establish a long-term, sustainable presence on and around the moon shortly thereafter.

Indeed, the main goal of these activities, which NASA will conduct via a program called Artemis, is to learn the skills and techniques needed to send astronauts to Mars, agency officials have said.

One of Artemis’ key pieces of infrastructure is a small moon-orbiting space station called the Gateway, which will serve as a hub for surface activities. For example, landers, both robotic and crewed, will descend toward the lunar surface from Gateway, and astronauts aboard the outpost will likely operate rovers from up there as well, NASA officials have said.

A great deal of research will be conducted on Gateway as well, and much of it will investigate astronauts’ health and performance in a true deep-space environment. Fogarty mentioned one research strategy that may be particularly useful to planners mapping out the path to Mars — studying small samples of human tissue aboard the moon-orbiting outpost.

News in Context:

  • Request for proposals to help astronauts combat behavioral health challenges such as stress and isolation
  • Neuroimaging study finds significant changes in brain structure during long-duration space flight
  • When flying to Mars, make sure to monitor and enhance brain function (radiation exposure can hurt performance)
  • Exploring the human brain and how it responds to stress (1/3)
  • Quick brain teaser to determine your stress levels

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